Merlene Davis: Good credit benefits refugees seeking Habitat houses

Beatrice Mbaya, a refugee from the Congo and case worker for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, is the proud owner of a Habitat for Humanity house. Photo was taken 8/26/10.  Photo by Merlene Davis | Staff
Beatrice Mbaya, a refugee from the Congo and case worker for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, is the proud owner of a Habitat for Humanity house. Photo was taken 8/26/10. Photo by Merlene Davis | Staff

When I was growing up, my mother didn't believe in credit or debt. We were the last family in the neighborhood to own a color TV because of that.

Now, I'm very thankful I got half of her genes.

That doesn't mean my husband and I don't have debt. It simply means we don't allow it to overwhelm us. We pay our bills, and we pay them on time.

For Beatrice Mbaya, a refugee from the Congo, and a case worker at Kentucky Refugee Ministries, there is no other way to live.

Mbaya is a widow with four children, one of whom she is trying to bring to America from a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. She and her other three children are living in a brand new home, courtesy of Habitat for Humanity, that she is paying for.

"It is a commitment," Mbaya said. "I said that I would pay, and I have to pay."

Credit is new to her. She said she's only had it twice: once for the plane tickets that brought her family to Lexington and then for the house.

"When we came over here, IOM (International Organization for Migration) gave us a loan for the plane tickets," Mbaya said. "And we have to pay the money back. That is how refugees build credit. You need to pay back the money every month for three years. But I paid off my loan in less than three years so, after that, I was trying to find a house."

Obviously, my mother's budgeting genes are not exclusive to my family.

Mbaya had been paying $600 a month plus utilities for a two-bedroom apartment that she and her family shared with roaches and other critters, she said. And while that might have been better than the dangers they faced during their stay in a refugee camp, Mbaya wanted more.

"Refugees have been through a lot of troubles," she said. "We really want to be stable. For me, being stable was to have a safe place where my children could live instead of moving and moving and moving."

Habitat requires applicants to be legal U.S. residents, in need of decent housing, willing to provide sweat equity and able to repay the no-interest loan.

"Where you come from, where you grew up, how you got to Lexington is not important," said Rachel Childress, executive director of Lexington Habitat for Humanity. "We did not go seeking refugee families, but we don't look at them any differently."

And in case you wondered, the refugees are not taking homes from Americans, Childress said.

"They are not taking anyone's place. We struggled over the years to get enough families," she said. "We don't have so many that we have to score or rank them in degree of need."

This year, half of the families receiving a new Habitat home will be refugees, mainly from Africa, and about half of the families awaiting homes to be built next year are refugees, Childress said.

I wrote a column five years ago in which Habitat officials were pleading with folks who wanted safe, affordable homes to repair their credit. Grant Eaton Phelps, then executive director, said debt that has been turned over to collection agencies had become a major stumbling block to homeownership. He said 50 to 60 percent of the people applying to Habitat had been disqualified because of unpaid debt.

One reason a significant number of refugees have received homes is because they have a clean credit history. There aren't many opportunities to build bad credit while living in a camp, and most of the refugees simply pay for things in cash.

Each Habitat family is taught the basics of budgeting and household economics: Don't spend more than you have, and save for emergencies such as repairing air conditioners, heaters or cars, Childress said.

The benefits of homeownership, she said, include safe, clean housing and the pride of owning a home. "You can't measure that in something tangible," she said.

With mortgage interest rates so low, buying a home seems to be a no-brainer when thinking of building wealth. Whether it is a home built by Habitat volunteers or the purchase of an existing home, owning a home is still the American Dream.

But before that happens, you need to learn how to budget your money and pay your bills on time.

I'll talk more about that Sunday when I tell you about a personal-finance and budgeting class that will start soon, sponsored by Catholic Charities of Lexington.