Program leads to home ownership, independence

Home is especially sweet these days for the Brimhall family.

That’s because Harold and Donna Brimhall, longtime public housing residents, recently became homeowners for the first time.

"It’s great," Donna Brimhall said Thursday at the couple’s modest Henderson home decorated with unicorn posters. "It’s our house now, and we can do what we want with it."

The three-bedroom home isn’t new to the Brimhalls. They’ve lived there about a decade. But until a couple of months ago, the 30-year-old house belonged to the Clark County Housing Authority, which rented it to the Brimhalls for just $550 a month.

Now, the 1,081-square-foot home belongs to the Brimhalls, who will no longer be considered public housing residents.

Housing authority officials said the family is the first in Nevada to take advantage of a new program the agency adopted.

It’s designed to help public housing residents purchase their own homes.

"What the housing authority is about is encouraging independence where it’s possible," said Howard Wasserman, director of operations for the county housing authority. "They are now bona fide homeowners."

The Brimhalls said that without the program’s help, they probably never would have been able to buy a home, let alone the one they already live in.

Donna Brimhall, 52, has heart problems and is unable to work. She receives about $300 a month in disability benefits. Harold Brimhall, 48, works a full-time graveyard shift as a gas station attendant, earning $8 an hour. The couple cares for their 18-year-old son, who has Down syndrome and receives about $630 a month in disability benefits.

It’s often been difficult making ends meet, especially after Donna Brimhall was diagnosed with congestive heart failure more than a decade ago and needed a pacemaker. The couple racked up credit card debt to pay for her medical needs.

It took them years, with financial planning help from the housing authority, to dig themselves out.

Now their credit is clean and they said they live within their means. Getting out of debt left them able to pay $840 monthly toward a $155,000 mortgage.

"We live on a budget, and we make sure our bills are paid," Harold Brimhall said. "If we don’t have the money to buy something, we don’t buy it."

Owning the home has put Donna Brimhall’s mind at ease.

"With my heart problems and Donald’s Down syndrome, I wanted my family to have somewhere to live if something happens to me," she said.

Wasserman said the housing authority has already sold four of its scattered-site homes to residents and hopes to sell nine more in the next month or so.

"This is the first time in the entire state of Nevada this program has taken shape," he said. "I can’t tell you why past (housing authority) administrations haven’t done it."

The agency had to get permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to dispose of some of its public housing units.

"We’re obviously in favor of home ownership," said Larry Bush, a HUD spokesman.

Bush said scattered-site public housing isn’t practical for housing authorities, anyway.

"It’s not a cost-efficient way of managing housing," he said. "Scattered sites are the hardest to manage, both from property maintenance and logistics standpoints."

Allowing qualified people to buy the public housing in which they’re already living is just one way in which local housing authorities are changing the way they do business.

The valley’s two other housing authorities, Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, both have plans to eventually demolish much of their public housing, replacing it with mixed-income or affordable housing, or Section 8 housing vouchers, which can be used to rent housing.

Clark County has no such plans, Wasserman said. Instead, the agency is expanding its public housing stock, with plans to build a 75-unit development next to its administration building on east Flamingo Road.

The three agencies collectively have a budget of $109 million, manage 3,100 public housing units and more than 10,000 Section 8 vouchers.

Bush said HUD "encourages people to develop skills and resources to become homeowners."

But "there will always be a need for public housing because of seniors and the disabled and those who are learning to become self-sufficient," he said.

Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at lcurtis @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285.

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