Frederick County Affordable Housing Land Trust

The Frederick County Affordable Housing Trust is a non-profit whose purpose is to ensure a sustainable supply of affordable workforce housing. It’s a partnership between Habitat for Humanity and the Frederick County Commissioners, and to the best of my knowledge is the only one of its kind in Maryland (although several other states have similar models).

Who They Are

Municipal land trusts, in general, are non-profits founded with the intent to keep housing affordable. They will either receive public/private donations of land and homes or use government subsidies to purchase them. After they acquire the land they sell the houses to low-income families, guaranteeing the homes are more affordable. In Frederick, the target family income to be served is 30 – 80% of the median income for the County. The goal, as with anything tied to Habitat for Humanity, is to provide a “hand up – not a hand out”. 

What They Do

When an individual applies to purchase a home through the land trust, they require several things from the family. The family needs to be able to qualify for a conventional mortgage (VA is authorized), and they must contribute at least 1% of the purchase price for the down payment. Given many mortgage companies want 10 – 20% down, this is a much more affordable target; especially when the home prices are already lower to promote purchasing. These homes are not open for purchase to be used as rental properties, the owner must live in the home – which, in my opinion, only seems fair. 

Families need to live, or work, in Frederick County. I don’t think this is an onerous requirement, I know many people who commute to DC or Montgomery County because it’s too expensive to live there. Finally, Habitat for Humanity will require the purchasing family to complete 8 hours of home buyer education training, offered by the Frederick Community Action Agency; and attend Land Trust Orientation. Again, to me this makes sense. After all – a big part of Habitat for Humanity is offering a hand up – and educating people about home ownership can go a long way to helping them understand the significance and commitment that comes with purchasing a home.

What Else Should I Know

The Frederick County Affordable Housing Land Trust is always looking for properties. Donations are welcome, although they will also purchase properties – within reason. As a non-profit they can give donors receipts for applicable tax deductions – for more information on how to claim this donation I recommend talking to your tax professional. For families or individuals who own their home, but have no one to leave it to, what better legacy could there be than to give someone, who may not otherwise have an opportunity, the gift of home ownership. An estate planning attorney can help you with these particulars. 

Additionally, because it’s a partnership with Habitat for Humanity there may be options to modify the home at a much lower cost. This is HUGE for veterans and families with disabilities – perhaps they need a ramp installed or doorways widened, just to name a few common needs. With the purchase of an affordable home more of the families budget can be set aside in savings and growth. Instead of being “house poor”, these home owners have the opportunity to establish themselves and focus on living, not just surviving. Click here to see the selection criteria.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Frederick County Affordable Housing Land Trust, and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). I will be posting about at least one organization a month, using information and notes I took when I met with them – as well as additional research I completed online. All opinions and views are my own.

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True “Cost” of Insurance

Often I hear people tell me “insurance is a scam” or “it’s too expensive”; yet when they need it they have never told me they wished they didn’t have it. Unfortunately it’s easy to take insurance for granted, after all we’re told we have to have it on our homes and autos when we take loans to purchase these items, so we seldom think about it unless it’s to shop for cheaper rates. And that’s where I think people go wrong – by trying to save a few dollars they, often unknowingly, put themselves at financial risk.

Now, I’m a fee-only planner – I don’t get paid to sell insurance, and I don’t think people always need to pay a lot of money for the correct coverage (depending on their personal history). But, and this is a big but, I do think people should be honest with themselves about what the correct coverage is. If you’re living almost paycheck to paycheck then you should have disability insurance – because if something happens how are you going to pay your bills? They don’t go away when you get sick or hurt, in fact often they just get bigger. The same goes for auto insurance – it’s not “if” you get into an accident, it’s “when”.

Is insurance a “scam”? No, I think in most situations insurance does exactly what it is designed to do – make you whole after a risk event occurs. But insurance companies are only required to pay for what you have covered, so if you wanted to save a couple bucks a month and dialed back on your coverage don’t complain when you get half of what you think you deserve. This is the true “cost” – having an unforeseen event occur and not being able to recover financially.

In general insurance companies will have different underwriting requirements. You may be able to find lower rates by shopping around, without changing your coverage. Or you may have to increase your deductible, the amount you pay before the insurance company does – which incidentally should come from your emergency fund and not impact your other savings.

How do you decide how much insurance to get? In my opinion talking to a professional is the best route to take, versus going online and possible just answering a few questions. Professionals will ask probing questions designed to get you to think, and they’ll help you determine what the best mix of insurance and self-funding is appropriate for your situation. Best of all at the end of the day it’s ultimately your choice. Everything they say is a recommendation – not an order. If you don’t like what you hear, get a second opinion. But be open and listen, don’t automatically assume they just want to sell you something.

Equipment Connections for Children, Inc

Equipment Connections for Children (ECFC) is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization whose mission is to serve children with a disability in the greater Washington Metropolitan area by connecting costly adaptive equipment from children with disabilities who outgrow the equipment to other children who need it. They accomplish this mission through soliciting adaptive equipment donations and matching them to the families with a child with a disability in need of equipment. Their vision is for a world in which all available adaptive equipment is in use by the children with disabilities who need it.

Who They Are

Equipment Connections for Children was formed in 2009 and received its 501(c)3 status in 2010. ECFC was founded by Claire Wong, a Physical Therapist working with children with disabilities in Montgomery County, Maryland for 20+ years. She saw a need in her community.  There was a need for children with disabilities who could not get the adaptive equipment they needed to help them do their every day tasks, so ECFC was formed to fill this need.

What They Do

In the simplest terms Equipment Connections for Children connects the dots. They accept requests for specific adaptive equipment from families with children and teens (age limit is 18). From there, they determine if they have the equipment requested on hand. If it is, it’s provided on a first come, first serve basis. If it’s not, it’s added to their “wish” list – with the hope someone will donate it. After donations are received their integrity is verified, they are cleaned (and repaired as needed) and sent to the next family.

What Else Should I Know

Unfortunately organizations like this one go largely unnoticed until someone has the need. Even then, it can be very difficult to determine how to find the resources needed, especially when the insurance company is either telling you they won’t pay, or it could take several months for approval.

Because Equipment Connections for Children is an approved 501(c)3 non-profit any donation received is eligible for a tax deduction – the amount approved to be deducted being the amount the donor paid for the equipment. Equipment Connections for Children does provide receipts, and is always looking to expand their inventory to help families in need. They are also looking for volunteers – to help maintain equipment, staffing on a Donation Saturday or serve on a committee.

If you, or someone you know either needs equipment or would like to make a donation you can do so using their website: click here to donateclick here to request equipment

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Equipment Connections for Children, and any errors noted are my own. If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). I will be posting about at least one organization a month, using information and notes I took when I met with them – as well as additional research I completed online. All opinions and views are my own.

I’ll Start Saving, Tomorrow

Saving for the future – we all “know” it’s something we are supposed to do, yet study after study shows the majority of us are not saving enough. So why not? Why is it so difficult to put a little bit away today towards what we want tomorrow? It’s a lot of factors –  education; planning paralysis – too many choices, so opt for none; and habits. Spending will generally be more natural for many because it provides immediate gratification.

Why We’re Not Saving

When we’re young, retirement is soooo far away – we have plenty of time, right? Then, as we age, we realize retirement isn’t as far as we thought – and the enormity of how much we need to save can paralyze us. We may tell ourselves, we’ll never have enough – might as well enjoy ourselves now. Or perhaps there are other contributing factors: caring for parents that never saved, or family members with Special Needs requiring expensive treatments and therapies.

Overconfident, insecure and overwhelmed – if one, or all, of these feels familiar to you you’re not alone. Studies consistently show Americans are not saving enough for retirement, and what I listed above are only a few of the reasons. We know we should, but how can we overcome these obstacles?

Start Small

I’m fond of telling my clients you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Don’t feel that because you’re behind where you need to be you need to start with a drastic savings plan. Much like fad diets, this won’t work over the long term. Develop a strategy that you’re comfortable with and execute. If it means you’re only contributing 1% to your retirement plan at first, then do it (but let’s be real – most people can start with more than this). This is meant to be a beginning, we need to overcome inertia.

How do you develop a strategy? Let’s start simple – how much are you spending every month? Make that your first savings goal, it’s realistic and it can be rewarding to watch your money grow to meet it. Once you’ve met that goal, set your next goal by multiplying the first goal by 6 (now we’re saving towards 6 months of expenses). Then double the goal each time it’s met. Celebrate when you meet your goals, do something to reward yourself – it’s a big deal. After all, previously you were not doing anything.

Increase Savings

Obviously 1% of your income isn’t going to get you where you need to be. So increase this annually and/or any time you receive a pay raise. If you’re pay is increased by 2%, increase your saving by 1%. You shouldn’t miss it, because you haven’t had it – and by not taking all of it you aren’t “shorting” yourself; you’ll be more likely to continue the savings. The only time to stop increasing is when you’re max’ing your 401(k) out, or when your financial planner tells you you’re good.

Check-Ups

Have an accountability partner. Set a date in your calendar of when you want to reach your benchmarks, and periodically see how you’re doing. Tell a trusted friend or loved one about your goal(s), maybe even make it a friendly competition. Don’t quit if there are set-backs or you don’t meet the benchmarks. Instead, ask yourself “why”. Were you being unrealistic with the goal, or did you not apply 100% of the effort you could’ve towards reaching it? Sometimes life just gets in the way, it happens – but you don’t have to settle. Having an accountability partner will help keep the motivation up when things aren’t going well, and you can do the same for them.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is financial security. It can be daunting, especially if you’re thinking you need to have a million dollars set aside and you haven’t started yet. Think back to skills you’ve mastered – were you able to do it right away? For most people the answer is “no”. It took time, effort and some setbacks – but yet here you are. Retirement is no different. Remember to give yourself milestones, and focus on those. After all, the hardest thing for you to do is take that first step and start saving.

Less “I Can’t”, More “I Will”

My son has Autism, and some days can be much more challenging than others – but if he’s taught me nothing else, I’ve learned nothing is impossible. When we first received the diagnosis he was non-verbal, and we were repeatedly told he would “plateau” regardless of how much therapy he had. This was many years ago, the medical profession is learning more about Autism every day and realizing they really don’t know what those with Autism are capable of. Academically, he will not be a Rhodes scholar; but where it matters – his social and everyday living skills, he’s blossomed. He’s never going to be a chatterbox, but he will engage with people – even initiate the conversation.

As parents I think most of us recognize and admit we’ll do anything for our children; but often I think we’re not as true to ourselves. We teach our children right from wrong, and hold them accountable; yet where is that accountability when we say we’re going to do something? Why is it acceptable for us to give in when the going gets tough, rather than opting not to take the path of least resistance and fighting for what we want. When somebody you are coaching says “I can’t, it’s too hard” you don’t let them off the hook. Yet for many of us when something seems too hard, we quit or find a work around – telling ourselves “it’s just as good” or “it’ll do”.

I get it, there is only so much bandwidth or energy a person has; and we need to pick and choose our battles. I can agree with that, but my issue is who is picking the battles we fight. Are we, or are we letting outside influences tell us what’s important. If you want something, it’s realistic and it’s in your power to achieve – then what’s really stopping you from reaching for it. To clarify, in your power to achieve does not mean you’ll have it tomorrow. Sometimes you will have to make sacrifices and be patient for that which you really want; but the feeling when it’s in your grasp is like nothing else in this world. The first time you achieve something you really stretched for you’ll understand you truly are unstoppable – the only thing that can get in your way is you.

This requires a paradigm shift. For those who pay attention, even minimally, to what others think or feel about them the first step will be putting that in perspective. Yes, perceptions are important at times – like the workplace; but they shouldn’t define who you are. It is not mutually exclusive to work for one’s goals and help other’s achieve theirs. Instead, find people on similar paths – use each other as leverage to get over the humps and roadblocks that will arise along the way. Motivate each other, when the words “I can’t” come out, challenge them. Is it “I can’t”, or is it “I won’t”?

Set milestones, and celebrate victories along the way. Not every victory has to be major, celebrating smaller victories keeps the momentum and motivation high. Setbacks only become failures if you stop; otherwise they are opportunities for reflection. What went wrong, why did it go wrong, and how can you prevent something similar in the future. Understand you cannot plan for every eventuality, especially when goals have a long time horizon; so accept there will be times when you will seem to hit a wall and tell yourself “I will overcome all obstacles”. You are powerful, why not use that power to achieve what you desire?!

Veterans and Survivors Pension (VA)

Not to long ago I helped my parents file a claim on behalf of my grandfather for Veterans pension; and it helped me realize how underutilized it is. I don’t think many veterans’ families are aware they, their family members or friends may qualify for it. In the hopes of helping raise awareness, I’m going to discuss what Veterans Pension is, how one qualifies and what Survivors Pension is. We as veterans need to make sure we’re asking for everything we’ve earned; it’s nobody else’s responsibility. We also need to be looking out for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. This fact sheet provides a good overview as well.

What are the Pension Benefits?

Veterans pension is a tax-free monetary benefit payable to low-income wartime veterans. There are income limits, with the income offsetting (reducing) the amount of pension received. The veteran’s income may be adjusted for medical expenses, including the costs of care in skilled nursing, assisted living, adult day centers and at home – as well as the premiums for Medicare and other insurance. If the veteran is collecting SSI or welfare, these benefits are NOT included in calculating income. Sources counted as income are gambling winnings, gifts of stock/property, inheritance, IRA & 401k withdrawals, social security and SSDI, VA compensation (VA disability), VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and wages. The 2016 pension amounts are below, each year these values are set by Congress:

Veteran with no dependents = $12,868

Veteran with a spouse or child = $16,851 (+ $2,198 for each additional child, adult disabled children may be included)

Surviving Spouse/death pension = $8,630 (+$2,198 for each additional child, adult disabled children may be included.

What is Survivor’s Pension? 

Survivors pension is a tax-free benefit payable to low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse and/or unmarried children. It is also income limited, although the income may be adjusted the same way as the veteran’s – by reducing for costs of care and insurance premiums. There is no age limit for unmarried spouses, but the benefit for children will stop at 18 if they are not attending a VA approved school or permanently disabled before the age of 18. If they are attending a VA approved school the child’s benefit will continue until their 23rd birthday, and if disabled (permanently incapable of self-support) they will receive it for life.

What are the Eligibility Criteria? 

The following criteria are NOT mutually inclusive, the veteran only needs to meet one of these and have a yearly family income below the amount set by Congress (and shown above). Although the veteran must have served during war time (not in a war zone), given how long this country has been in conflicts it’s safe to say most will probably qualify. The veteran must be age 65 or older, OR totally and permanently disabled, OR a patient in a nursing home receiving skilled nursing care, OR receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), OR receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). I think it’s important to note – you can be in a nursing home, receiving care and paying for the care with your retiree pension and still potentially be eligible for this benefit – depending on the cost of care. Think about your friends and family who have parents or grandparents receiving care – they may be able to offset some of those additional costs through veteran or survivor pension. 

Are There Additional Benefits?

There are two additional benefits veterans should be aware of – Housebound and Aid & Attendance (A&A) . Housebound may be added to the monthly pension if the veteran or survivor are substantially confined to their immediate premises because of a permanent disability. A & A is an increase to the monthly pension if a veteran or survivor:

  • Requires the aid of another person in order to perform personal functions required in everyday living, such as bathing, feeding, dressing, attending to the wants of nature, adjusting prosthetic devices, or protecting yourself from the hazards of your daily environment
  • Are bedridden, in that your disability or disabilities requires that you remain in bed apart from any prescribed course of convalescence or treatment
  • Are a patient in a nursing home due to mental or physical incapacity
  • Their eyesight is limited to a corrected 5/200 visual acuity or less in both eyes; or concentric contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees or less

How to Apply?

You can download the form from the VA’s website and submit the claim to the VA yourself, although I encourage you NOT to. Veteran Service Organizations (VSO’s) like the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) will submit the claim on your behalf and work as your representative to the VA, free of charge.

ABLE Update

Significant progress has been made in 2016 with two states – Ohio and Tennessee – allowing contributions to ABLE accounts; and several more states expected to follow by the end of the year. Some important things to understand about these plans, and ABLE accounts in general. First and foremost – they do not, nor should they, take the place of a Special Needs Trust. ABLE accounts have a maximum limit of $100,000 to continue receiving Social Security and Medicaid benefits (higher balances will suspend eligibility); and each state’s maximum balance will match the maximum balance of their traditional 529 plans. Special Needs Trusts do not have a maximum limit. Additionally, ABLE accounts are subject to Medicaid payback – depending upon the type of Special Needs Trust this is not the case.

Individuals can only have one ABLE account, and $14,000 per year is currently the total contribution limit. Recent legislature has passed allowing eligible individuals to open an ABLE account in any State, regardless of where they reside. Currently neither Ohio nor Tennessee offer a state income tax deduction for contributions, and it’s unclear if any states will incorporate this into their accounts. Qualified withdrawals –  withdrawals applied towards qualified disability expenses of the beneficiary, may be taken tax free. The definition of qualified withdrawals is extremely broad at this time – including expenses like buying an iPad or music therapy.

It’s important families have a plan for what the ABLE account is going to be used for. Although there are many investment options available, if the contributions will be applied to daily living, or short term goals, the best option is to leave the money in cash. The ABLE account vehicle provides a great opportunity for individuals with disabilities to have an emergency fund; something they’ve never been able to accumulate in the past because of the $2,000 asset limit for social security benefits.

How do you get the money out of the account? Both Ohio and Tennessee offer debit cards with their accounts, and I think it’s a safe bet to say most, if not all, plans will offer something similar. Tennessee has a 10 calendar day waiting period after a contribution has been made before funds may be withdrawn; Ohio’s waiting period is 7 business days for check contributions, and 5 business days for an ACH contribution.

Another important clarification: although the disability had to be diagnosed before age 26, there is no age limit to open an ABLE account. For example, if an individual is in their 50s, but received a disability diagnosis at the age of 16, they may open an ABLE account. These accounts are not just for families with children or young adults, if you’re unsure if you or a loved one will qualify consult an advisor or visit the ABLE National Resource Center’s web site.

ABLE accounts don’t solve all of a families’ problems, but they are a step in the right direction to providing individuals with disabilities independence and providing families with a sense of security. Although there is a contribution limit, there are no restrictions on who can contribute. An ABLE account should be considered another tool for the success of your financial plan.