Good Neighbor Linda Norton: Affordability is her Business

When Linda Norton attended an organizing meeting of Funding Partners for Housing

Solutions in 1994, she was already an old pro in the affordable housing arena.

Norton, a sales associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Fort Collins, Colo., had built a reputation for helping first-time and credit-challenged buyers. She’d also volunteered with a nonprofit group that bought land and put it in trust to keep the land cost out of the housing equation. But for Norton, Funding Partners offered something different—a new way to use her business skills to help families struggling for the comfort of home.

“We were looking for a broader solution to affordability,” recalls Norton, who served five years as Funding Partners’ volunteer president before stepping down earlier this year. “We didn’t want to build houses—there were plenty of good organizations doing that. Instead we asked ourselves what was needed to make housing more affordable. The obvious answer was money. So our mission became to find more ways to bring more dollars.”

With that mission in mind, Norton and the Funding Partners board in 1995 applied to the U.S. Department of the Treasury to become a Community Development Financial Institution. CDFIs are nonprofit lenders that receive federal grants to fund underserved market niches. Funds must be matched dollar for dollar by money raised in a local community. After almost a year of applications and due diligence, Funding Partners received a $600,000 grant.

With those first dollars, the organization launched two core programs—Custom Housing Solutions and House to Homeownership (H2O). CHS makes construction and bridge loans, which developers can use to cover the “soft costs,” such as architect fees and predevelopment planning, that often stop a deal from being made. Keeping loan terms short so money can be recycled to new projects, Funding Partners has used its current pool of $5 million to contribute to the construction of more than 700 rental units.

The second program grew directly out of Norton’s own experience with a chronic first-time buyer problem—no downpayment. The innovative H2O program makes loans to homeowners equal to 5 percent of the home’s value. The money can be used for a downpayment or closing costs. Because the loan doesn’t have any payments for 10 years—unless the house is sold or refinanced—it doesn’t affect the loan-to-value ratio. “That helps buyers qualify for a larger loan,” says Norton. H2O has helped more than 400 Colorado residents become homeowners.

One Arvada, Colo., family that benefited was Shirley Bowling and her two sons, who were squeezed into a cramped apartment after Bowling’s marriage dissolved. “Owning my own home has given me such pride and confidence that I can move forward in a positive direction and set a good example for my sons,” says Bowling. “I would never have been able to save the money for a downpayment.”

If Norton’s efforts to help struggling buyers challenged her creativity, she faced a far greater test when Funding Partners decided to create affordable housing in a long-standing community landmark. Situated on a prominent corner in the city’s Old Town, the late-19th century Northern Hotel is “the postcard image that represents the town,” says Fort Collins Mayor and affordable housing advocate Ray Martinez. But years of neglect had degraded the landmark into an eyesore. Martinez remembers, as a young police officer, chasing criminals through the halls of the Northern. After several failed attempts to turn the property into an upscale hotel, the Northern was facing demolition. Funding Partners stepped up and, in 1999, bought the condemned property for $1.5 million.

“It was a collaborative nightmare. Everyone felt a sense of ownership—the city, the historic preservation groups, and citizens who had family memories they associated with the hotel,” says Karen Gerard, former executive director of Funding Partners. “Linda was pivotal in providing leadership and calling on the board’s courage to finish the project.”

Today, after a $10 million renovation, the building’s signature stained glass dome leads the way to 47 apartments for very-low-income seniors. First-floor retail space—of which 50 percent is already leased to tenants such as Starbucks and the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory—helps bridge the gap between affordable rents and mortgage expenses.

“Linda’s totally committed to the cause of affordable housing,” says Gina Roe, executive director of Funding Partners, “and the Fort Collins community is a better place for that commitment.”

How to contact Funding Partners for Housing Solutions

2000 South College Ste. 200
Fort Collins, CO 80525
tel: 970/494-2021
fax: 970/494-2022

In Memoriam

2002 Good Neighbor Award winner Linda Norton passed away on September 22, 2007 after a three-year battle with cancer. Norton, 57, was well-known in Northern Colorado as a passionate advocate for affordable housing. As chair of Funding Partners for Housing Solutions, Norton launched innovative programs to provide affordable housing to thousands of low-income home buyers and renters. In one project, she led a renovation that created 47 apartments for low-income seniors and saved a historic building.