There's no place like home: BHA helping tenants become first-time buyers

Jennifer Torres on the first-floor porch of the three-decker in the Bowdoin-Geneva area housing the condo unit that she hopes to close on by the end of the month. Cassidy McNeeley photo

A pair of programs that seek to pivot Section 8 tenants into new homeowners are gaining traction, according to Boston Housing Authority officials who hope more qualified residents will tap into the opportunities this year.

One program includes a $75,000 grant that eligible home buyers can put toward a down-payment to buy a housing unit within city limits.
In 2022, only one Section 8 voucher participant purchased a home in Boston through the program. In 2023, the number rose to 29 and officials say they have more in the pipeline this year.

Keanna Smith, 34, is one of the latest to take advantage of the grant program. A Section 8 certificate-holder for five years, she learned that she could use her voucher toward a mortgage instead of rent and began looking for a home with the help of BHA counsellors.

“Every weekend I would go to three or four houses,” said Smith, who operates a recruiting agency. “Initially, I found a house outside of Boston, but when I really thought about it, it made sense for me to buy in Boston because the program only offers $75k if you move to Boston,” Smith said.

This month, Smith closed on a colonial-style, four-bedroom and two-bath home in Dorchester. “I looked at this house and it was beautiful,” said Smith. “It was exactly what I was looking for. It checked off all the boxes of what someone could want in their first home,” said Smith, who received the keys to her new home on Feb. 2. 

Megan Ryan, the BHA’s director of homeownership and mobility grant programs, said the initiative is one part of Mayor Wu’s attempt to halt displacement of longtime city residents from the neighborhoods.

“With rising home prices in every neighborhood, a lot of people feel like their only option to buy a home is outside of Greater Boston,” said Ryan. “Families and neighborhoods are changing because of gentrification. Life-long residents of Dorchester and Mattapan are being driven out. They’re not able to afford to buy within the community without assistance programs.”

She added: “Given these conditions, the city recognized that a down payment is critical, and given that our tenants are generally starting around an even lower household income [Average Median Income] level, they need even more assistance to be able to bridge the gap in affordability. So, they are granting $75,000 for our tenants to buy a home in the city of Boston.”

Smith, who was born and raised in Dorchester, sees the program as a corrective one in a city with a notorious history of redlining Black people. “With the history of Black people owning homes, there were things set up systematically where people weren’t able to get homes and loans,” said Smith. “There was a lot of gatekeeping and blocking and so this right here is a step forward in equality as well.”

The program that Smith tapped into targets Section 8 holders and uses federal funds for the down payment. The city of Boston has created a second vehicle— known as the Citywide Voucher Homeownership program— that uses city funds to assist BHA residents seeking to make the same transition. In this model, the BHA partners with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and invites approved partner agencies to refer first-generation homebuyers to participate in a lottery program. Winners are given a monthly subsidy to put toward a mortgage. 

Jennifer Torres, 42, who was born in Puerto Rico but has lived in Boston for more than two decades, is going through the process now and hopes to close on her first home at the end of the month. 

“After they sent the email that everything was approved, I started looking. I found a realtor agent and we went to this place, and it was amazing,” Torres said about the condo in the Bowdoin-Geneva area. “It was everything I was looking for and we made an offer, and they accepted the same day.”

The mother of three added: “Growing up I didn’t have a place I could say was my house or if anything happened to me, I never had a place to go back to. For me, it’s really important that if anything were to happen to me and my kids, no matter how old they are, they always have a place to go back. We are so excited.”

Ryan hopes that this year the two programs will double the total number of participants. 

“BHA houses about 10 percent of the city of Boston population, so we are one of the largest housing providers and the sixth largest housing authority in the nation,” said Ryan.  “Since we launched the first home program over the past year, we are now tracking toward 41 first-time homeowners.”

For more information regarding these programs visit Descriptions of the programs, eligibility criteria, and applications can all be found under the “For Applicants” tab. BHA can also be reached at 617-988-4000 or in person at 52 Chauncy St., Boston.

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