Affordable Housing
Comments on Housing Counseling, Training and Tenant Advocacy in the Washington, D.C. Area

Marian Siegel
Executive Director of Housing Counseling Services, Inc.
Thursday, December 15, 2005 12:00 PM

Marian Siegel, executive director of Housing Counseling Services, Inc. (HCS), was online Thursday, Dec. 15, at noon ET to field questions and comments about housing counseling, training, and advocacy for low- and moderate-income homebuyers, homeowners, and tenants in the Washington, D.C., Metro-area.

From The Post:

The Purchase Of a Lifetime (Post, Dec. 14)

At Each Hurdle, Stronger Resolve (Post, Dec. 15)

Photo Gallery

HCS is a non-profit agency founded in 1972 to provide training, counseling, advocacy and technical assistance to low and moderate-income tenants, homeowners, homebuyers and the homeless throughout the DC metropolitan area.

At HCS since 1987, Siegel has worked closely with area non-profits, businesses, professional partners and government agencies to create programs, policies and procedures focused on empowering low and moderate-income families to develop the skills and take the necessary steps to secure appropriate and lasting housing.

Siegel received a Bachelor of Arts in Housing Policy from Hampshire College in 1979 and completed coursework for a Masters of Science in Consumer and Housing Economics from Cornell University. She worked and interned in a variety of housing related positions including the Governor's Office for Constituent Services in Massachusetts, the Housing Allowance Program in Springfield, Mass., and Neighborhood Housing Services in Ithaca, N.Y.

The transcript follows.


Marian Siegel: The real estate boom has created a crisis in housing affordability for thousands of low and moderate-income families who have called the District home, often for generations. The housing crisis has had similar implications throughout the country and is not limited to those living below the federal "poverty-line".

Instead of participating in the boom, low and moderate-income families are most often its victims. Living through years of neighborhood decline, drugs, crime and minimal services, low and moderate-income families have not had the opportunities for wealth creation and stability. As the median price of homes has risen by double-digits for several years, families that have been the cornerstone of our communities have been left with few choices and often face displacement from their homes and neighborhoods.

The recent series on Capital Manor offers an excellent glimpse into the lives of many District tenants and guides readers through the jubilation and pitfalls faced daily. Hundreds of tenants faced with the loss of their homes have taken similar steps to grab hold of opportunities for housing preservation through tenant purchase.

The complexities of the tenant-purchase process require that tenants quickly become "experts" in real estate development, finance, coalition building and construction, and at the very least, to develop the expertise to find and select appropriate partners. There are great opportunities for partnerships with non-profit and for-profit developers, attorneys, educators, housing counselors, organizers, lenders and government agencies who assist tenants in taking the necessary steps for success.

Housing Counseling Services (HCS) is a non-profit agency that builds the individual and group capacity to achieve good and affordable housing and retain it into the future. I hope that today's discussion will shed some light on affordable housing opportunities and provide some answers to your questions and additional resources. If I am unable to get to your question today, Housing Counseling Services offers comprehensive housing counseling, training and technical assistance on all housing issues. Please feel free to call HCS at 202-667-7006 for further assistance.



Bowie, Md.: I have only lived in the DC area for four months. In that time I have studied the current housing troubles very closely. I find it troubling that there exists such a large discrepancy between the small rise of average income and the explosive rise of housing prices. Currently, our region enjoys a very low unemployment rate; however, unaffordable housing could drive emigration and see the unemployment rate rise significantly. So much progress has been made in improving the city; the lack of affordable housing could derail that progress. I believe strongly that affordable housing will be a cornerstone of continued civil improvements. My only question is how can I help? What career opportunities might be available?

Thank you

Marian Siegel: Thank you for your question. There are several non-profit and government agencies that work on affordable housing issues. CNHED.org and several other organizations offer regular newsletters on housing and economic development issues and often post job opportunities in this area. Housing Counseling Services currently has several positions open for housing counselors and trainers, Please feel free to send your resume to our office. Our fax number is 202-462-5305.


Washington, D.C.: Where can I find information on the Web about grants for first-time home buyers? Are there any other workshops/programs to attend besides NACA and HPAP that are available in the Washington, D.C., area for single individuals with low to moderate income? Thank You!

Marian Siegel: HCS offers a pre-purchase orientation workshop (PPO) every Thursday from 11:00 to 1:00 and the first Wednesday of every month from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at 1730 Kalorama Rd, NW. At this workshop we provide an overview of the home purchase process, information on various home purchase programs and how to prepare to take the next steps to reach your purchase goals. The DC Housing Finance Agency recently announced a new mortgage program offering both reduced rate mortgages and grants for downpayment assistance. www.dchfa.org


Northwest, Washington, D.C.: What do you all consider moderate income? My husband and I make a combined yearly income of around $100,000 but cannot afford anything in the city. We currently pay $1,700/month for a one bedroom and we think we could probably afford as much as $2,000 for a mortgage payment. As you can imagine, that gets you nowhere in D.C. One of the main reasons we want to buy a house is to start a family, so we really need at least a two bedroom.

Do you all provide counseling for these types of situations?

Marian Siegel: We find that many folks believe that they are unable to purchase, yet once we meet with them and unravel their actual situation, broaden the scope of their housing search and help them to develop a housing plan, homeownership can become a reality. We recommend that anyone (at any income) interested in purchasing a home, take the time to educate yourselves about the process, meet with a counselor, lender or other to help you to establish a home purchase plan.

There are many first time homebuyer loan programs to assist with downpayment and closing costs.

There are many neighborhoods in DC where $2,000/month offers viable home purchase opportunities.

HCS and many other local counseling agencies offer comprehensive housing counseling to assist in these situations and many others.


Washington, D.C.: Will you be affiliated with the Tenants Advocacy Office in DCRA? How can you have a tenants advocacy administration in a regulatory agency. This office should not be part of DCRA. This will create confusion with the Rental Accommodations Office. You will have co-workers pitted against each other. Tenant Advocates are pro tenant, and RACD has to stick to the DCMR 14 regulations.

Landlords have right too!

Marian Siegel: Housing Counseling Services is a private, non-profit organization and will have no role in the DCRA Tenant Advocate position. HCS provides information, education and training to tenants and tenant associations throughout the District so they can make informed decisions regarding their housing options and obstacles. Although we are not sure what the relationship will be like between the Tenant Advocate position and the rest of DCRA, we hope the advocate will also serve as a resource to tenants; providing support and accurate information to the many Washington DC tenants seeking help with their housing problems.


Washington D.C.: I am a 23 year old soon to be college graduate. I will start off making around 45,000 a year. I have spent most of my childhood/teenage years in Northern Virginia and I could not even imagine leaving the area I have called home for so long. However as a single person. 45,000 a year pretty much leaves me out of the homeownership market. I have already resigned to the fact that I will probably not live in Northern VA anytime soon, but originally I thought that Maryland might be an option. Prices in Maryland are pretty much out of my range as well. Are there any homeownership programs out there for recent college grads?

Marian Siegel: There are many private and government funded first-time homebuyer programs, though none that I know of focus on recent college grads. Many local governments are developing "workforce housing" programs in order to allow teachers, nurses, police officers and other moderate-income families to remain a vital part of the communities in which they work. Please check with the city and county Department of Housing offices and local counseling agencies for more information on these programs.


Fairfax, Va.: I bought a townhouse under Virginia's Affordable Dwelling Unit program in 1996. I am a single white female, I work in the IT industry, make decent money (above $50k a year), have never been in trouble with the law and come from a good background. Still, I feel stigmatized by the program. Even though the program offers the opportunity for homeownership, it does not offer all the benefits for homeownership. For example, any cosmetic improvements (new kitchen cabinets, new carpeting, upgrades to bathrooms, etc.) do nothing to increase the value of the house. We cannot sell them at market value until we have lived in the house for 15 years. Before that time if we want to sell we have to sell back into the program for what we bought it for plus the increase in the CPI (which is generally less than 1%). If we sell it after 15 years we have to give half our profits to the to the ADU program. What kind of incentive is that to offer affordable housing and then offer no real ownership benefits beyond the tax break of ownership? (which, under this administration, may go away). I feel the program offers the "illusion" that we should be proud to own homes but still stigmatizes us and makes it nearly impossible to better our situations, i.e. make a profit like everyone else in the area does on their homes.

I just wanted people to know about the "small print" before they sign up for an ADU unit. It's not all its cracked up to be.

Marian Siegel: You touch on an important debate. Home equity accounts for a great amount of wealth in this country and is often the only mechanism that the average working family has to save significantly for their future. Some view subsidized homeownership programs as a way to redistribute wealth through home equity, giving low and moderate income families the "leg up" they need to improve their family's lives and opportunities.

Many (though not all) affordable homeownership programs limit the amount of equity that a participant can reap. While most families benefit from their home equity, allowing them to purchase a larger home when their family size increases or to send their kids to college, some of these programs make this impossible and perhaps therefore, do not really offer the full benefits of homeownership.

On the other hand, others believe that with the enormity of the housing crisis, publicly subsidized housing should not be captured by any one family and should support ongoing affordable housing opportunities.

I, for one, believe that low and moderate income families should have the opportunity to create some wealth through homeownership and there are a variety of models that allow both long-term affordability with acceptable equity accumulation.

So I certainly agree...ALWAYS READ THE SMALL PRINT!


Washington, D.C.: Why are there so few tenant groups taking advantage of the right of first refusal law and buying their buildings to convert them into cooperatives? How can we change that?

Marian Siegel: Although, we have successfully assisted many tenant associations through the tenant purchase process, we often ask ourselves why some tenant groups fail to respond to notice that their buildings are for sale.

We have found that there is a combination of factors that discourage tenants from responding to this valuable opportunity. Oftentimes tenants just do not understand how purchasing a building is possible. Tenants do not know of the many resources available to help them through the purchase process and think it is "impossible". Without proper information on how a tenant purchase works, many tenants get discouraged and miss out on a powerful right given to them under DC Law.

We believe that providing education on tenants rights and on how the tenant purchase process works can help tenants understand that it is possible to purchase and develop buildings successfully. We recommend that any tenant receiving an offer of sale seek immediate assistance from one of the many groups that can assist tenants through the steps of buying a building. Housing Counseling Services is only one of the many resources available to tenant groups needing information and support throughout a tenant purchase.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Marian,

As a single mother of 2 girls, I would like to be able to afford my own home in the near future. The rising market doesn't seem to be able to grant me that possibility. I am now renting a 3 bedroom apt for $1275 and feel as though that money could be going towards a house. Granted I have a roommate who pays $500 of that. Is there a possibility that I could find a nice 3 bedroom townhouse, condo, single family home with paying a mortgage of only $700 - $1200/month, in the DC metropolitan area.

Marian Siegel: The DC government offers a wide variety of first time homebuyer programs that assist low and moderate income families:

The Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP) currently offers up to $35,000 to assist with downpayment and closings costs;

American Dream Program (ADDI) can be combined with HPAP and offers an additional $10,000;

EAHP, a special program for DC employees (including but not limited to teachers, firefighters and police officers) offers downpayment and closing cost loans and grants (and property tax benefits for MPD);

DC Bond Program that offers reduced rate mortgages and downpayment grants

I'm sure I left some out in my haste, but there is good support and opportunities through both these government programs and those offered by the private sector...call a counseling agency in your area to get more info on these and the many other programs available.


Alexandria, Va.: I think I know what counts as low-income but what counts in this 'moderate income' category? We used to have lower, working, middle and upper class, referring to income levels I suppose, but has the housing issue refocused our discussion of class to this revised framework that focuses less on actual income and more on your monthly mortgage payment? A housing issue, yes, but also a social issue that might impact more than just the housing field.

Marian Siegel: There are many different guidelines that define "moderate-income". It often depends upon the specific program or policy statement...But, never assume that your income is too high to qualify for a housing program, always check on the program requirements for each first time homebuyer program, as you may be surprised by the income qualifications.

Also look into banks,non-profit and government agencies for programs that you may be qualified for. There are some agencies that are working on "workforce housing" programs, affordable home purchase for teachers, police officers and others moderate-income families working in the community.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi! Thanks for the chat. You have mentioned a few times that there are many first-time homebuyer loan programs to assist with downpayment and closing costs. Can you please be more specific? Where can I go to learn more about these programs? Is this something a realtor can help with?

Marian Siegel: Housing Counseling Services, along with many other non-profit agencies, are available to assist throughout the DC area on any housing issue. Your real estate agent may be good source of information, if he/she is up-to-date on housing programs, but I also recommend that you seek additional information and advice from an entity that does not have any advantage based upon your personal purchase decisions.

I previously provided more details on some programs.


Washington, D.C.: What's the best way to find a good lawyer for a DC tenant association that wants to exercise its right of first refusal to purchase it's building?

Marian Siegel: Although there are many excellent lawyers in DC, there are fewer who specialize in DC housing law issues and who work with tenant associations. Washington D.C. housing law is highly specific and we recommend seeking a tenant association attorney with experience and a track record of successfully assisting tenant groups.

Housing Counseling Services can assist any tenant group in contacting, interviewing and checking the references of an attorney. There is a short list, of no more than 20, free legal clinics, private practice attorneys, and pro-bono attorneys who specialize in working with tenant associations and who are commonly contacted by tenants and tenant associations seeking help. This list of attorneys can also be found in such tenant resources as the, "Tenant Survival Guide", a very good summary of DC housing Laws printed by Georgetown University Law Schools' Harrison Institute.


Marian Siegel: Thanks for all of your questions. As I have passed my allotted time, I'll need to leave many questions unanswered for now. Please feel free to call HCS at 202-667-7006 for further assistance.



Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive