As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it’s impossible not to think of the sacrifices of first responders.
More than 300 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers died in the initial aftermath of the attacks. Thousands of FDNY members and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) have been diagnosed with health problems related to 9/11 in the ensuing years, including cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, asthma, and mental health issues.
Their response, and sacrifice, illustrated for the entire country how integral first responders are in emergencies both catastrophic and closer to home.
Nearly 20 years later, the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the country, and first responders in every state were on the front lines. Armed with ever-changing information, too little personal protective equipment, and too few patient beds, they fought to save lives even as they risked their own.
Now, as the nation prepares to mark the somber anniversary of 9/11, it’s become clear that first responders are heroes of their communities every day, not just during national crises.
And part of being a community, and having a sense of groundedness amid the stress and trauma of their jobs, is having a home to return to at the end of their very long days.
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Homeownership is correlated with a number of benefits, including decreased doctor visits and better health outcomes than those for non-homeowners, according to Habitat for Humanity. It also nurtures greater civic and volunteer participation, both of which can help people feel connected to others, a key component of mental well-being.
Then there’s the sense of ownership and stability that comes with knowing a place is your own. Home is a sanctuary, a place to recharge and heal after the rigors of the day. Stability can be essential for coping with mental health challenges, which are pronounced among first responders.
Kaiser Permanente reported that depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are five times more common among first responders than the general population. Firefighters and law enforcement officers have an increased risk of suicide, and more than 140 police officers died by suicide in the first three months of 2021, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Another troubling number from Kaiser Permanente: 85% of first responders surveyed experienced some mental health issues.
At a time when first responders have been run ragged due to the recent surge in Covid deaths and hospitalizations, as well as wildfires, natural disasters, and civil unrest, the need for home as a sanctuary has never been more apparent. Homeownership won’t address all of the challenges first responders face. But it can provide significant benefits to support their health, well-being, and sense of connectedness to their communities.
The Center for Housing Policy found that, “Stable and affordable housing also supports mental health by limiting stressors related to financial burden or frequent moves, or by offering an escape from an abusive home environment. Affordable homeownership can have mental health benefits by offering homeowners control over their environment.”
Additionally, “Homeowners are more likely to live in higher-quality housing and have more freedom to adapt their surroundings to their needs, reducing stress and leading to greater levels of satisfaction.”
Fortunately, there are a number of options that make homeownership attainable for this critical group.
Home loan programs for first responders
While there are no nationwide home loan programs specifically created for first responders, there are a number of mortgage options and assistance programs that may be a fit.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration proposed a new loan program for first responders via the Homes for Every Local Protector, Educator, and Responder (HELPER) Act. Though it’s not yet signed into law, this program could help first responders become homeowners if passed.
Like the VA loan — which is available to veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and some surviving spouses — HELPER loans would have a 0% down payment* requirement and no monthly mortgage insurance.
There would, however, be an upfront mortgage insurance premium. The proposed premium is 3.6% of the loan amount, though the final figure could be different if the act is passed. The upfront fee is also similar to the VA loan, which has no monthly or annual mortgage insurance but does have an upfront funding fee.
If the HELPER Act passes, it could provide 0% down home loans to:
- Law enforcement officers
- K-12 teachers
To qualify, borrowers would need to be currently employed in one of these roles and would need to have worked in the field for four or more consecutive years. Those who are not working because of a work-related disability may also be eligible.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allows firefighters, law enforcement officers, EMTs, and full-time K-12 educators to buy homes for 50% off the list price through the Good Neighbor Next Door program.
The homes must be in cities or neighborhoods that the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) has designated a revitalization area. These are places where the government is trying to nurture homeownership and community investment.
Borrowers must agree to live in the home as their primary residence for at least 36 months to receive the Good Neighbor Next Door benefit.
You can look up homes available through the program here.
Homes for Heroes is a for-profit organization that can help you save money on homebuying costs via its network of lenders, title companies, real estate agents, and other mortgage industry professionals.
Law enforcement officers, firefighters, teachers, and EMTs can qualify for assistance through Homes for Heroes, as can military servicemembers and healthcare workers. The organization’s website says homebuyers save an average of $2,400 by working with its partners.
You do not have to work exclusively with agents, lenders, and companies recommended by Homes for Heroes. Rather, you can source help through them and decide which, if any, of their affiliates you want to use.
Home for Heroes is not a mortgage lender. It was founded after 9/11 to create a network of professionals and companies that would help first responders become homeowners.
The BorrowSmart℠ program provides up to $2,500 in down payment assistance, depending on your income, for eligible borrowers who are using a Freddie Mac HomeOne or Home Possible mortgage to buy a home.
If you are a first responder or K-12 teacher, ask your mortgage lender whether they offer special assistance programs for homebuyers in your line of work. Some companies discount certain fees or will cover the closing costs for first responders. Even if you don’t see these programs advertised on a lender’s site, ask about them before you apply.
It’s always a good idea to get mortgage quotes from at least three lenders anyway, so inquire with each about first responder assistance options. Then compare the overall costs and benefits each offers.
Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offer 3% down conventional loans for first-time homebuyers, as well as very low- to moderate-income borrowers, including:
- Freddie Mac HomeOne
- Freddie Mac Home Possible
- Fannie Mae HomeReady
To qualify for a conventional loan, most borrowers need a credit score of 620 or higher and an approved or eligible debt-to-income ratio (DTI*.
Learn more: Top 12 No Down Payment Mortgages for 2021
FHA loans enable borrowers with credit scores of 580 or higher to purchase homes with 3.5% down. If your credit score is between 500-579, you may be able to get an FHA loan with 10% down.
You can use an FHA loan to buy a home anywhere in the country, and there are no income minimums or limits.
Learn more: FHA Loan Requirements 2021 | Rates & Eligibility
USDA loans are 0% down mortgages for very low- to moderate-income homebuyers in designated rural and suburban areas. Eligible borrowers can use a USDA loan to buy a single-family home with little to no money upfront, as there is no down payment requirement and you can use gift funds to cover closing costs.
Borrowers must purchase a home in a USDA-eligible area and meet the program’s income limits.
Learn more: USDA Loans: A Zero-Down Loan For The Suburbs
VA loans are backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and eligible borrowers with full entitlement benefit available can purchase homes with 0% down.
Veterans and current servicemembers from all branches of the military, including Reservists and National Guard and Coast Guard members, can qualify for VA loans as long as they meet the service requirements. Some surviving spouses may be eligible as well.
Borrowers with full entitlement do not need a down payment, and they are not subject to loan limits, which can be an advantage in competitive housing markets.
Home loans for first responders FAQs
First responders may be able to save money when buying a home via programs such HUD’s Good Neighbor Next Door option, which enables them to buy certain houses at 50% less than their list price. Some lenders may offer programs that cover closing costs for local firefighters, law enforcement officers, healthcare workers, EMTs, and teachers.
You can also potentially save by working with the Homes for Heroes organization, which connects first responders with mortgage industry affiliates to help them secure discounts when making a home purchase.
Police officers may be able to buy homes through the Good Neighbor Next Door program, or through local lender programs designed to help first responders afford a home. There are no national loan products specifically created for police officers, but there are a number of assistance programs that can put homeownership within reach.
The Good Neighbor Next Door program is open to law enforcement officers, firefighters, full-time K-12 teachers, and EMTs.
First responders keep their friends, neighbors, and loved ones safe. It’s only right they have a place of their own in the community as well. If you are a teacher or first responder, there are a number of loan products and assistance programs that can help you buy a home, perhaps sooner than you think.
Fairway is not affiliated with any government agencies. These materials are not from the VA, HUD, FHA, USDA, or RD, and were not approved by a government agency.
Some references sourced within this article have not been prepared by Fairway and are distributed for educational purposes only. The information is not guaranteed to be accurate and may not entirely represent the opinions of Fairway.
*A down payment is required if the borrower does not have full VA entitlement or when the loan amount exceeds the VA county limits. VA loans subject to individual VA Entitlement amounts and eligibility, qualifying factors such as income and credit guidelines, and property limits.
**Debt-to-income (DTI) ratio is monthly debt/expenses divided by gross monthly income.