IMPORTANT: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has changed the application process for emergency rental assistance! Click here to learn more

A pandemic-driven path to homeownership: Meet 2021 FSS graduate Shari Mendez

April 19, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives, taken lives, and reshaped how we go about living our lives. For Shari Mendez, who works at a nursing home and is raising six children, the stress of the pandemic was felt both at home and at work.  

“My living situation was just not the best,” Shari says. “I was living in a two-family house, and the neighbors played music. And with the pandemic we were home all the time, no one was going anywhere.” 

Then there was a shooting in the apartment downstairs. Way Finders Program Specialist Sonia Colon recalls this as a turning point for Shari. “I remember she called me that day, so frustrated because of what she had experienced. Afterward, she kept pushing herself to make this happen.” 

“This” being homeownership. Shari closed on a three-bedroom ranch in Chicopee in September 2021 (“The basement will be finished, so it’ll soon be four bedrooms!”). She is the first person in her family to own a home. 

Shari’s joy is a mix of pride and relief—that she has accomplished this goal (“The process hasn’t been easy!”) and that she’s no longer paying $1,000 a month in rent for a living situation that felt intolerable.  

Sonia’s support helped pave the way for Shari, who joined the Way Finders Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program in 2018 with the initial goals of strengthening her credit and saving money. Mentorship is at the heart of the FSS program, which aims to help participants (those receiving a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher) move toward economic stability over the course of three to five years. With full recognition that no one can go this road alone; encouragement to set—and achieve—goals is essential. 

Due to her initial income level, Shari’s experience with the FSS Program did not follow the typical timeline, Sonia notes: “From day one, Shari started participating in the FSS Homeownership Program and was receiving information from all the different providers. Lenders, home inspectors, realtors. So the process was really educational for her.” 

Shari laughs as she hears Sonia’s take. “I didn’t feel like I was ready to look! But Sonia is really good with motivation. She looked over all my stuff and she was like, ‘You’re all set. You’re ready to go. Don’t be scared, just go forward.’” 

This shift in mindset toward homeownership—and a living situation that would bring her more control and peace of mind—coincided with some financial silver linings from the pandemic: overtime pay and stimulus checks. 

These additional sources of income, coupled with the actionable tips she learned through credit education (be more mindful of where you’re swiping your card; write down what you spend and what you think you spend, to see where your money really goes; pay off your debts from smallest to largest), enabled Shari to pay down debt and improve her credit score. She was also able to grow her savings. 

“I kind of just put money aside every time, like the pandemic stimulus and those kinds of things,” Shari says. “Instead of spending it, I put it in the bank.” 

With recommendations from Sonia, Shari knew where and how to go about securing a loan for a mortgage. After putting five offers on homes, one worked out—and she received a $5,000 homeownership bonus when she relinquished her Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher.  

“They’ll have their own backyard,” says Shari, about what the move means to her children. “It’s a nice neighborhood. They’re proud of me and I’m proud to be able to leave this to them, as time goes on. It’s their own space where they don’t have to worry about anything going on when they go outside.” 

When asked to reflect on the difference between renting and owning, Shari highlights the value of both equity and mental well-being. “I’m not just giving someone money. I’m going to have something in return. And I’m no longer paying for living situation that I really didn’t want in the first place!” 

Having graduated from the FSS Program, Shari is poised to offer her own words of coaching and advice to prospective participants:

“It’s natural to be nervous and unsure. But just talk to your counselors. They give great advice, they’re here when we’re doubting ourselves. It’s not an easy process and it’s not quick. But put your mind to it, always ask questions, and take it one day at a time.” 

Congratulations to you, Shari, on your accomplishment!