Latika Wesley, 23, signs for her down payment assistance grant with Jim Dickerson of the non-profit group Manna Saturday at Wells Fargo’s City LIFT’s D.C. kickoff at the convention center. The program, administered through NeighborWorks America, will assist first time buyers hoping to live in Prince Georges County and D.C. (Photo by St. John Barned-Smith/For The Washington Post)

More than 1,300 would-be home buyers descended on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center over the weekend hoping to secure a $20,000 down-
payment assistance grant from Wells Fargo to buy a house in either the District or Prince George’s County.

Jim Dickerson, founder of Manna, a local housing nonprofit organization administering the grants for Wells Fargo, said the money can help revitalize neighborhoods in the two jurisdictions. Both have been hit hard by foreclosures.

“They are the pioneers,” Dickerson said of those receiving the grants. “They get involved in the PTA, they have a stake in the community . . . it’s a ripple effect that changes everything. This is what’s behind all this.”

Wells Fargo has allocated $7 million for the Washington region and $170 million nationally. It has already held 12 similar events around the country. Manna is working with Wells Fargo and the bank’s national nonprofit partner, NeighborWorks America.

Latika Wesley, 23, arrived prequalified for a mortgage of $80,000, she said. She works at a staffing company and hopes to become a mortgage professional.

“No one in my family owns a home,” she said. She was the first member of her family to graduate from college.

“I don’t want to be a renter for 20 years like my uncles and aunts,” she said.

The $20,000 grant could help Wesley make a down payment on a home. After that, her monthly mortgage payment would only be about $80 more than her current rent payment, she said.

“There’s a big difference in what I can get at $80,000 or the low $100,000s,” she said, explaining that the grant also would enable her to afford a more expensive home. “This gives me a lot more flexibility with the price range I’m looking at.”

The CityLIFT grant program is designed to “spark the market,” said Lisa Zakrajsek, a Wells Fargo executive vice president for home lending.

Zakrajsek said that nonprofit groups working with Wells Fargo had reported that when even a couple of properties start to sell in a neighborhood, it generates interest and helps to lift the market. “It’s good for the neighborhood,” she said. “We felt like we had put everything we could into helping customers through the foreclosure crisis. We stepped back and asked, ‘What can we do to help the housing market?’ ”

Dickerson said that many of those receiving grants would be first-time homeowners.

“Homeownership has taken a big hit because of the foreclosure crisis, and often these people were blamed, but they weren’t the reason for it,” he said. “So this is tremendous.”

Manna has helped homeowners buy about 1,000 homes over the past 30 years, he said, with a foreclosure rate of less than 2 percent and no foreclosures in the past eight years.

The Wells Fargo assistance will translate into about 350 grants in the District and Prince George’s. Those whose incomes are within 120 percent of the area’s median income are eligible.

Deborah Boatright, NeighborWorks America’s northeast regional representative, said that a $20,000 grant can mean the difference between renting for a lifetime or joining what for half a century or more has been the homeowning mainstream. “For the individuals,” she said of those at the convention center, “CityLIFT gives an opportunity to buy into their dream.”

Homeowners can use the money for mortgages obtained from any lender, she said.

The grant can be used for any home in the District or Prince George’s, except for foreclosed properties owned by Wells Fargo.

After they have been approved, potential purchasers have 60 days to obtain a signed purchase agreement on a property and go to settlement (with an additional month if necessary), said Kimberly Smith-Moore, a program manager for the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation.

To keep the assistance, homeowners must live in their houses for five years and receive eight hours of home-buyer education, she said.

“I bought a house, and I wish I’d known certain things” before the purchase, she said.

If the buyer cannot close on a house within the 90 days, the reserved money rotates back into the CityLIFT fund for another buyer.

Raul Bopp, 60, and his wife, Veronica Carrasco, 51, live in Brookland, but they are thinking about buying a house in Prince George’s. They owned a house in their native Chile but moved to the United States 12 years ago. Bopp is a construction worker, and his wife teaches Spanish at a bilingual D.C. charter school.

They had been searching for an affordable house for a while, he said. “The prices are too expensive in comparison to our incomes,” Bopp said.

“The grant would help a lot because it would be part of the down payment,” he said.

“It would be a dream to own a house here.”

Jennifer Brennan, 26, and her partner Peter Lewis, 40, of Mount Rainier had also been looking at houses for several months.

“Since I was a little girl, owning a house was my ultimate goal,” Brennan said, adding that she couldn’t understand why people would spend money on a big wedding when they could buy a house.

Lewis said the grant program was one way for mortgage lenders to address the damage of the foreclosure crisis.

“It’s a way to repair families,” he said, “and have them back in a home.”

Barned-Smith is a freelance writer.