A lifetime of memories exists in the house where Kristin Miller grew up in southeast Topeka's Hi-Crest West neighborhood.
Miller, a 39-year-old single mother, says she was going through a divorce when she bought the house in 2014 from the estate of her late father, Richard Miller. She wanted to keep it from being bought by "slumlords."
"I lost my dad, I got divorced and I lost my job all in the same nine- or 10-month time frame," Miller said.
Then, in late 2017, Miller found herself facing home repair costs she couldn't afford to cover.
Fortunately, she said, she was accepted into a program through which the city's housing services division loans money to homeowners in lower-income neighborhoods to have needed work done.
"Being a single parent with four kids, I couldn't afford to do all the repairs that needed to be done," said Miller, who said her job with Topeka Unified School District 501 "doesn't pay much."
Soon after being accepted into the program, Miller said, she learned a new sewer line was needed for her house.
The city agreed to loan her money to pay for that, too, saying she would be responsible for repaying the lien whenever she ceased to be the house's owner.
Miller then recently got a welcome surprise when the city agreed to provide loan forgiveness to herself and others who have outstanding liens through the program, provided they remain in their home five years after receiving the loan.
The arrangement calls for the city to forgive Miller's outstanding lien, which totals more than $25,000, if she stays in her home the entire five-year period after she took it out, she told The Capital-Journal this past week.
"In late November, my loan will be fully forgiven," she said. "I will owe nothing, and I never paid anything, but I got all these repairs done to the house."
Homeowners may now have lien released
Miller is among those benefiting from a new lien release program through which homeowners who have a current lien with the city's housing services division may now have that lien released, said Gretchen Spiker, the city's communications director.
"Over the past 40 years, the city has provided thousands of rehabilitation loans to citizens," Spiker said this past week. "After the city completed the rehabilitation, a lien was placed on the property, with a partial forgiveness after a period of time."
Miller said she would have been responsible for covering a lien that totaled more than $25,000, including interest, if and when she ceased to be the owner of her home.
But the city effective Nov. 9 initiated a lien release program through which 100% of its loans that are currently in effect will be forgiven if the homeowner agrees and stays in the home at least five years, Spiker said.
Miller's entire lien will consequently be released once that five-year period ends in late November, she said.
To date, the city has done over 80 releases, which has helped put nearly $300,000 back into low-income households, Spiker said.
Other potential releases are still being processed, she said.
Those who have a current lien with the city's housing services division will qualify for the lien release program, Spiker said. The new policy will also apply to future rehabilitation loans, she said.
Liens in the more-than-$25,000 amount that Kristin Miller had are rare and among the highest for the program involved, Spiker said.
"Some of the releases are for $2,000 liens," she said.
Move lets homeowners use own money
“By removing the lien on the property, we’re allowing people to be able to make improvements to their property by using their own funds," said Corrie Wright, the city's division director of housing services. "This was something we had been looking at for some time, and I’m excited to have it come to fruition.”
Wright asked those who have questions regarding the program, or who want to see if they qualify for a release of a lien, to call the city's housing services division at 785-368-3711.
Miller said the presence of the city program increases her confidence in the city's willingness to take steps to help out Hi-Crest West.
"It's a great way to get your house repaired for free," she said, adding that some people don't use the program because they aren't homeowners or don't know about it.
'Enough to survive but not to thrive'
Miller now has five children, four of whom still live with her.
She esaid she's been frustrated in the past that government entities tended to provide food stamps and free lunches to people not working, yet didn't provide assistance to working people who were "on the cusp" and were making "enough to survive but not to thrive."
The city's willingness to loan money to help residents increases Miller's confidence that it cares about the working poor, she said.
"I think the city's trying, and I think the programs it's put in place to help are really helping," she said.
Miller also feels renewed confidence in the future of the Hi-Crest neighborhood and has slightly increased the size of her home there, she said.
Hi-Crest West saw "a bunch" of shootings in the two years after Miller moved back there in 2014, and she found herself wondering "how much longer we can do this," she said.
However, Topeka police have increasingly been present in the neighborhood, including maintaining an increased police presence that makes her feel safer there, Miller said.
"I just think that they've done a great job," she said.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Topeka now forgiving home loans made to aid lower-income neighborhoods