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Fla. bill would assist first responders purchasing first home

The bill aims to eliminate the down payment and monthly mortgage insurance premium requirement for first responders buying their first home


Sen. Marco Rubio talks with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue personnel before the start of a Tuesday presentation at Fire Rescue Station 50 on a bill to help first responders and teachers eliminate down payments and mortgage insurance requirements to buy their first homes.


Dan Scanlan
The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville Firefighter Tyler Brennan bought a house two years ago with his wife-to-be when he started at Fire Station 50 at the entrance of the Tamaya subdivision off Beach Boulevard.

Able to get a “decent” interest rate then, he said many young firefighters aren’t able to do that now in the city they protect because of soaring housing prices.

But a bipartisan bill introduced in mid-May by Rep. John Rutherford could help, he thinks.

The bill aims to eliminate the down payment and monthly mortgage insurance premium requirement for first responders and teachers making their first home purchase. Set to be submitted on the Senate side soon by Sen. Marc Rubio, both Florida Republican lawmakers said its passage could mean major savings for police, firefighters and teachers striving to become homeowners.

Speaking inside Station 50 on Tuesday, Brennan said the bill will help a lot of younger firefighters.

“It seems like most of the department right now are young, and it will help them stop renting and be able to build a foundation,” he said. “It will be good. I am 30 now, but when I bought my house I was 27. These young guys in their early 20s can really take advantage of it.”

Rubio said the bill is not a measure of charity or just a nice thing to do, but “a necessity” since the median price of a home in Florida has skyrocketed and annual salaries for police, firefighters and teachers have not kept up.

“One of the biggest challenges we are facing is the cost of housing,” he said. “There are counties in this state in which the people who serve that community can’t live in the county. They live an hour and a half away. ... Can they afford to live in that community? Because if they answer is no, you have a housing problem.”

And in order to recruit firefighters, as well as keep them here, some way to help them afford a home in their community has to be found, Jacksonville Fire Chief Keith Powers said.

“Any way we can help those men and women achieving the American dream and moving forward in their lives is an amazing thing,” Powers said. " ... They get enough pressure with the kind of work they do, and this just takes one more component, a stress, out of their lives that they don’t have to worry about.”

According to the National Association of Realtors, housing prices are at an all-time high in the state, year-over-year prices for new homes spiking more than 24 percent. As those prices rise, annual teacher, police and firefighter salaries increased by only two to 3.6 percent, the lawmakers said.

The Homes for Every Local Protector, Educator, and Responder (HELPER) Act would be a one-time use home loan program administered by the Federal Housing Administration if it passes the House and Senate.

The HELPER Act would remove some financial obstacles when buying a house like a large down payment. It mandates that the first-time buyer must have been employed by his or her agency for four or more years, or has retired due to an “occupation-connected disability resulting directly from such duty or employment.” They cannot have applied for a new home mortgage in the past, and the home they are buying must be their primary residence.

The idea for the bill came from Sam Royer, national director of Heroes First Home Loans, which provides mortgage financing for military, police, firefighters, teachers, healthcare workers and other civil servants. He proposed it to Rutherford, Jacksonville’s sheriff from 2003 to 2015 before running for Congress, who said it was “something we need to get behind” and began working on legislation.

“It is truly pretty simple,” Rutherford said. " ... We needed a program that would allow first responders; police, fire, paramedics, our nurses and our educators, to be able to move into a home with no down payment, with no mortgage interest payment every months.”

Florida Police Chiefs President Stephan Dembinsky, also public safety director for Daytona Beach Shores, said they fully support the bill. Florida’s police departments are “struggling” to recruit new officers, especially where housing costs so much, he said.

“That’s a sad thing,” he said. " ... True community policing means officers can afford to live in the communities that they serve, so we are proud to stand in support of this act, which will give officers and all first responders the opportunity to achieve home ownership.”

And the head of the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters, Manuel Fonseca, says the bill will “take care of families.”

“If I woke up and got a second chance to redo my life, I would still be a firefighter, but I could not afford to live in the community I do today,” the retired Nashville Fire Department assistant chief said at Tuesday’s event. “I bought when my house was $6,000; it’s worth $500,000 today and I can’t afford that as a young firefighter.”

Rutherford said that the bill already had 25 co-sponsors including Florida Rep. Al Lawson and fellow Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey. Rubio said he will file the Senate version when that body convenes on Monday, hoping for “unanimous support to get it out.”