Community on the move: Welcome, neighbor: Homeownership program attracts university employees to College Park
By Eric Olson
Maria Cabnal Hernandez used to spend time on a tedious commute. Now she walks in her Berwyn neighborhood with her dog, chatting with neighbors. She loves the friendliness and sense of community she has found. “I literally have about 20 cell numbers of pet parents that will go above and beyond if they can to help. If you are sick and need someone to help you walk your pet or care for your pet, people will step up and help,” she says of the network she has developed.
Cabnal Hernandez, a senior development coordinator in the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Office of University Relations, is one of 73 university employees who have purchased their homes here through the College Park City-University Partnership’s Homeownership Program. The partnership launched the program in 2015, with grant funding from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Community Legacy program, and additional support from UMD and City of College Park. The program offers forgivable loans of $15,000 to full-time, benefits-eligible university and city employees to buy homes in College Park. A home purchased through the program must be the buyer’s primary residence, and homebuyers who stay in their homes for 10 years will have the loan forgiven.
The program is attracting university faculty and staff who want a short commute, bringing new homeowners to College Park who might have otherwise settled in a nearby community like Takoma Park or Silver Spring. When we talk with our homebuyers, one of the things they love most about being here is breaking their reliance on driving. In fact, 76 percent said that they usually walk, bike or take public transportation to get to work now.
Valerie Hoy, an employee with the UMD College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, purchased her home in Hollywood through the program, in 2016. “I love that College Park is an affordable place to live, but still safe and conveniently close to downtown DC. Thanks to the many public transportation options nearby and most essentials (like grocery stores) within walking distance, I can live an almost-car-free lifestyle.”
Cabnal Hernandez cites the walkability of the community. “I like living close to the lake, parks, campus and trails. I like that LIDL, CVS, Rita’s, etc. are so close by, within walking distance. Most of all I like feeling safe while walking my dog in the area.”
Each home purchase helps stabilize neighborhoods by adding homeowners who are rooted in the community — people who both live and work in College Park. This also boosts our local economy, because when people live in the community where they work, they typically spend more money locally. Finally, living and working in the same place reduces traffic, which is better for the environment. The number of university faculty and staff living in College Park has jumped by a third during the course of this program, from 4.5 percent of all university employees to nearly 6 percent. That number continues to grow today.
We have welcomed 165 new residents to College Park through the program, including many young families who are putting down roots — of the 73 homebuyers, 26 are families with kids. Laura Hood, coordinator of engagement and activities at the university’s Stamp Student Union, describes College Park as a great place for her daughter to grow up, writing, “We had a 4 month old daughter when we purchased the house but as she grew up we didn’t know how many public parks and playgrounds we had at our finger tips. We regularly schedule play dates and it’s always hard picking just one to visit. We would have to say that Daniels Park is our favorite after work visit … swings make a child happy.”
Seventy percent of the people who have purchased homes through the program are first-time homeowners, and the majority of participants are newer university employees — 63% have worked at the university for less than 4 years. As these university employees settle in our green and vibrant community, many are putting down deep roots for the future. They are also telling their co-workers and friends about the program and how wonderful it is to call College Park home.
We are glad to welcome so many new neighbors who are contributing to the future of the city. As Laura Hood said, “My neighbor, who has owned his house since the early 2000s, was excited that more families were moving into the neighborhood. We felt that we were part of creating a stronger community.”
For more information about the program and to read homebuyers’ profiles, go to collegeparkpartnership.org/homeownershipprogram/