A wooden library stand at the corner of Ashley Strahm’s front yard is plastered in Durham-centric stickers with sayings like “Bull City.” Inside the box sit dozens of books, free for borrowing.
Strahm and her husband, Cody, have lived in their newly built house in Durham for three months, and in that time, the couple created their “Lending Love” community library and started a Sunday brunch tradition with neighbors to discuss faith and social justice over donuts, turkey bacon and cornbread.
A 26-year-old digital marketing and communications specialist for Duke Health Development and Alumni Affairs, Strahm received advice on buying a new home through the Duke Homebuyers Club, a free program organized by Duke's Office of Durham and Regional Affairs. The program offers eight-week classes and monthly meetings for eligible Duke University and Duke University Health System employees.
Through the program, Strahm and her husband took a three-hour evening class about budgeting, credit repair, loans, interest rates and working with a realtor. They researched areas of Durham and were drawn to the cottage-style homes being built along North Miami Boulevard within an established neighborhood.
“Cody and I were complete novices at buying a home, so we wanted to talk to some experts,” Strahm said about the Duke Homebuyers Club. “It was a good little extended family of people, even for that brief period of time, that made the process a little less daunting.”
Strahm is among 61 Duke employees who were part of the Duke Homebuyers Club in 2016. The club began as a pilot in 2013 to connect Duke employees with certain income qualifications to home-buying opportunities in the revitalized Southside neighborhood near the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Duke offers a $10,000 forgivable loan to employees who meet income and work requirements and buy a home in the Southside neighborhood in Durham. The club has since expanded into a mentorship group and focuses on home-buying opportunities in the Triangle area.
“One of the things that makes us proud is when we see employees making changes,” said Mayme Webb-Bledsoe, Duke's coordinator of the Duke Homebuyers Club. “It’s a journey for most of the people who are in it. You have people who are going through the same thing, and they are in partnership with you in hopes that this is a life-changing experience.”
Seven Duke employees, including Strahm, bought homes last year with help from the Homebuyers Club. Thirty other employees received Homebuyers Club certificates because they completed at least eight hours of homebuyer education classes. The certificates can qualify the employees for additional financial help from the club’s community partners such as Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable homes for low-income families; Reinvestment Partners, which provides housing counseling; the Community Empowerment Fund, which offers savings opportunities and financial education; and SunTrust Bank. These partners, along with Duke staff, help employees on the path to improving their credit, saving money, and connecting with lenders and realtors.
Nathaniel Brown, senior public services library assistant for the Lilly and Music libraries at Duke, received a certificate in December.
Left to right, Laron Blount, Nathaniel Brown and Janice Cousin Thorpe pose with Reinvestment Partners' Lorisa Seibel after receiving Homebuyers Club certificates in December.
Brown, 36, said he joined the club in 2015 because he was tired of paying rent, but he didn’t have enough money saved for the upfront costs of buying a house, such as inspection and closing costs. He continues to participate in Homebuyers Club meetings, and with help from the Community Empowerment Fund, he is currently enrolled in a savings account that provides a 10-percent funding match.
Brown said he is focused on growing his savings, even though he has bills, student loan debt and credit card debt to pay off every month. He hopes to buy a home in Durham in one to two years.
“You’re sharing this camaraderie with other people who are going through the same process with you,” he said about the club. “It gives you confidence.”