Section 8 renters are typically some of the poorest members of the community, earning no more than 50 percent of the area median income. In fact, a majority of Section 8 renters earn no more than 30 percent of the area median income, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Although Section 8 renters have been able to choose the type of housing they wished to rent, homeownership was never in the picture. But recent legislative changes now permit Section 8 voucher cash to be used to pay a monthly mortgage payment.

That was the opening Freddie Mac has been waiting for. In a pilot program being tested in Wheaton, Illinois, the secondary mortgage market lender has joined forces with the non-profit DuPage Homeownership Center to offer a new program designed to get Section 8 voucher holders out of their rental units and into homes they own.

The DuPage Housing Choice Homeownership Program aims to move 10 families who hold Section 8 vouchers from renting to owning within the first year. The program relies heavily on pre- and post-purchase counseling, says DuPage Homeownership Center executive director Lisa Tapper.

That’s critical to a successful non-profit homeownership program, notes Brad German, a spokesperson for Freddie Mac. In a recent study, Freddie Mac determined that pre-purchase counseling can reduce mortgage delinquencies by as much as one-third.

The DuPage Housing Choice program is open to families who earn 30 to 50 percent of the area median income, which is $70,500, in DuPage County. That limits participating family income to no more than $35,500 per year. The family must also currently receive Section 8 vouchers or be on the waiting list.

“The minimum income that a family must have is $10,300,” said Tapper. “That’s equal to a full-time job of 2,000 hours per year worked at the current federal minimum wage.”

Also, the voucher holder must not have owned a home within the last three years.

Families who want to take part in the Housing Choice program must be prepared for a long haul, Tapper added. “There is a 25-point sequence of events that the family must go through, and someone has to be very motivated to complete the program because of the time involved.”

The basic process starts with attendance at an initial eligibility session at the DuPage Homeownership Center. The Center then helps develop a personal action plan, followed by personalized counseling, and a trip to Firstar Bank, the lender that works with the Center, for loan preapproval. Once the family has been preapproved for their loan, they have 120 days to locate a property.

German said that one of the reasons Freddie Mac chose the DuPage Homeownership Center for the pilot program is the resources that the Center, the local housing authority and DuPage County agreed to commit to this initiative.

“We have special emergency funds available to help out in a time of crisis,” explained Tapper. “The Housing Choice Homeowners Emergency Fund allows homeowners to apply for a grant of one mortgage payment or repairs up to $1,000. We also have the Robert Christ Fund. Clients who have gone through one of the programs can apply for an emergency loan through us with no limit. It’s an interest free loan with manageable payments designed to help someone cover an emergency, like the furnace breaks, without getting behind on their mortgage payments.”

The DuPage Homeownership Center has an excellent track record, German said. In 10 years of helping more than 200 families, no one has ever defaulted on their mortgage.

And adding to the pool of stable, self-sufficient homeowners is one of Freddie Mac’s top priorities.

“Homeownership is about life and lifestyle. [The program] is about creating responsible taxpayers who will feel more secure about their financial position in the world,” said Tapper.