Saving our American Dream

I have always admired the leaders that motivate change for the good of all people. A leader is someone who is not afraid to take chances for the greater good. A leader is courageous, innovative, inspiring and conscientious. Because of such, I am grateful for the opportunity to be honored as a White House Champion of Change. I began deliberating about what affordable housing means to the communities in which we live. A home is more than a place to live; it is a financial asset, a place to raise a family and an investment in the community. In many instances, a home is the only asset that many low to moderate income households will ever possess. It is a means to remove oneself out of poverty. It provides stability to families and neighborhoods. In turn, communities grow and prosper, broaden their tax base, and create new jobs and promote pride within the community.

The ways in which we create affordable housing and maintain the current housing stock must transcend the traditional norms of how we do business. Rebuilding existing dilapidated neighborhoods is essential to providing safe, descent and affordable housing to people in need, and it could not be accomplished without the recognition from funding sources and local governments. However, we must begin to understand the need to broaden our horizons with regards to where we create housing and how we expand these services beyond the inner cities and rural communities. We must acknowledge that every human being deserves affordable housing throughout all neighborhoods. In order to assist low-to-moderate income households with creating wealth, we must understand that these populations must recognize how others with increased access to wealth live. In other words, placing poor people amongst other poor people creates desperation and isolation, not motivation and prosperity. We must begin to address the needs in a non-judgmental and respectful manner to promote economic and social self-sufficiency.

The next obstacle, with regards to maintaining and improving existing neighborhoods, is combating the root of much demise for many strong communities. I am speaking of foreclosure prevention. To me, this has become a stronger passion than the creation of affordable housing. During the recent years, many neighborhoods across the country have all but disappeared as a result of the foreclosure explosion. There are many contributing reasons that range from the closing of businesses to possible fraudulent mortgage transactions. Many homeowners are struggling to maintain their mortgages as a result of loss of employment. I have come to realize that many of the homebuyers that received foreclosure prevention counseling were not aware of the opportunities to seek out assistance with their lenders, community organizations and local housing counseling agencies. This lack of knowledge is in part of the nonexistence of homebuyer education seminars to potential homebuyers who are of higher income. Many of these households never considered the possibility of losing their jobs or the dissolution of their relationships that helped to maintain their lifestyles.

In October 2001, I began working with the Community Action Program of Evansville & Vanderburgh County, Inc. (CAPE). CAPE is a Community Action Association that offers a variety of services for low-to-moderate income households to help promote strong communities. The services range from: Head Start & Early Head Start, Energy Assistance, Weatherization, Individual Development Accounts, and the like. I started as an Energy Assistance Program Intake Clerk, where I assisted customers with completing applications to obtain financial assistance for their utility bills. I gradually worked my way up the channels to the Weatherization Assistance Program. I had just received my certification as a HUD Certified Housing Counselor -- I wanted to broaden my horizons to include everything housing related.

It was here that I came across my first foreclosure prevention homeowner. I remember the day as if it were yesterday.The homeowner arrived at the agency for assistance with his pastor. He was desperate and afraid of losing his home -- disabled and struggling with some personal issues. He stated . . ."this agency was my last resort and I would not have known what to do if this agency could not assist me."  We spent five hours speaking with numerous bank representatives and their attorneys. In fact, we had to conclude the session and begin the next day. On the second day, we were able to reach a resolution, which resulted in a successful and affordable loan modification. My certification didn’t focus much on foreclosure prevention. This topic didn’t become popular until recently, as you well know. This was my first "real on the job training”!

From that moment, I vowed to commit 100 percent to every homeowner who is in need of saving their home. I would like to say that since that time, I was able to assist every homeowner with saving their homes. Of course, this has not be the case. Often, I would ask a homeowner, who was unable to retain their home, what would they change? Many say ". . . I would have sought the services from a housing counseling agency sooner." Many were grateful to have someone by their side to walk through the process and provide emotional support. My greatest inspiration is seeing the successes amongst the families that have received assistance from our CAPE housing counselors. Helping people realize their desires to improve the quality of their lives and their communities gives me all the motivation that I need. We must not give up on our American dream! Thank you for allowing me to share my experience as a housing counselor with you.

Tehiji Crenshaw is the Director of Housing Programs at Community Action Program of Evansville & Vanderburgh County, Inc. (CAPE).

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