ROCKLAND, Maine — The lime-colored room filled with a Victorian bed is the first bedroom Ria Biley, 62, of Rockland has ever had to herself. The green, one-story 1960 ranch is the first home she ever bought on her own.
“I wake up. I hear the birds singing and smell the sea air, and I say ‘I’m home.’ It’s the first thing I think every day,” she said.
But she could not have done it alone.
Biley doesn’t have much money. Her credit isn’t stellar. Two successful battles against cancer (breast and skin) left her with disabilities. She receives a disability check each month and supplements that with some freelance writing. So it took the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Direct Single-Family Housing Program to get her a mortgage she could pay.
Because of Biley’s low income, she was given a 38-year mortgage with a 1 percent interest rate.
Biley pays $270 in principal and interest monthly on her $102,000 home. When added to the $293 she pays for local property taxes, she still pays less than most rents in Rockland.
“I couldn’t rent an apartment for this,” Biley said, pointing at her mortgage bill. “My taxes exceed my principal and interest.”
In July the USDA increased the maximum salary limitations for these low-income mortgages so more people can get the loans. Now a single person can make up to $32,200 a year and a family of four can make up to $46,000 and qualify in Rockland. Other counties’ limits vary.
“We can often put people into homes for cheaper than they can rent,” said Virginia Manuel, the state director of USDA Rural Development.
Further, many of the people who get loans from the USDA “are renting or are moving from a home that is falling down and would be expensive to repair and needs to move into another home that is safe to occupy,” Manuel said.
Biley is one of 1,559 Maine families that have been helped so far this year with about $193 million from the USDA. Last year the program dealt out $308 million to 2,472 Maine families. The families must show that they can pay back the loan. The payments then go back to the USDA to help fund the program for more people, according to Virginia Manuel, the state director of USDA Rural Development.
Only people in rural areas can get the loans — but almost all of Maine is rural. Portland, Westbrook, Biddeford, Lewiston and Auburn are about the only places that don’t qualify.
The result of the direct loan program, Manuel said, is that Mainers can build wealth and feel proud.
“There is nothing like the pride of homeownership,” Manuel said. “If homes can be purchased at a price where over time they can build equity, it helps Mainers build wealth over time. It gives Mainers a sense of security and pride and a commitment to community. There is nothing like owning your home and being able to do what you want to it, fix it up. It gives folks dignity, and we’re really happy to help them achieve that.”
Biley plans on a lot of little fix-ups. Just about every room in her three-bedroom home is pink. Pepto-Bismol pink.
“This is a very well-built house, but no one has done any cosmetic work,” Biley said standing in her kitchen. “Everything needs to be painted, scraped, polished.”
She said the bones are good. The rest can be fixed. She expects it will take two years. Because of her handicap, Biley relies on her friends to help her make her home a home.
For Biley, homeownership was a step into independence.
“It’s a start of my new life,” she said.
In 2009, when Biley’s house hunting began, she had just left a 27-year marriage. After two years of jumping around to five different apartments, living out of boxes, she closed on her home in February.
Most of Biley’s things are still stacked in boxes in her garage. But it’s her garage they’re stashed in. That’s the difference.
“I feel secure here after being a gypsy in my own town for two years,” she said.
Now all she has to do is weed, scrape, paint, scrub and fill her house with furniture.
“This needs to feel like home because it’s my last home. I’m coming out of here in an urn.”