Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 5, 2021

Helping erase economic disparity

Realtor offers financial security to community often mired in debt

Nadia Charmelus is the owner and managing broker of Vision Realty in Chattanooga. In addition to representing buyers in home searches and real estate purchases, she provides counseling for financially distressed renters who want to own a home. - Photograph provided

A little more than 10 years ago, Nadia Charmelus noticed one of the couples in the church her husband pastors was drowning in a deep pool of financial distress.

As Charmelus, the owner and managing broker of Vision Realty in Chattanooga, describes it, the husband and wife had sunk to the bottom and believed they had no means of rising above the surface.

Not only had they experienced bankruptcy, but they also had a baby, and every time they needed money the husband would borrow it from a loan shark, Charmelus recalls.

“They were never not in debt. Every other week, they were in danger of being kicked out of their apartment.”

More than a decade later, many African Americans still face numerous hurdles to homeownership. A recent news release from the National Association of Realtors states minority homeownership lags far behind the national rate, with the homeownership rate for Black Americans (42%) trailing nearly 30% behind the rate for white Americans (69.8%).

To address the homeownership gap, the NAR worked with the Urban Institute and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers in 2019 to develop a plan that calls on the nation to “advance policy solutions, tackle housing supply constraints and affordability, and promote an equitable and accessible housing finance system,” reads the NAR’s release.

The plan also calls for more outreach and counseling initiatives for renters.

Here, Charmelus is well ahead of the curve. Since the late 1990s, she’s been providing financial counseling to both the parishioners at Vision Ministries – a largely African American church in Chattanooga – and others outside her place of worship. A large portion of her efforts have involved helping renters become homeowners.

“When I married my husband, two of our members owned a home,” she says of the congregation at Vision Ministries, which at that time numbered about 100. “I thought, ‘It costs just as much to pay a mortgage as it does to rent a house, so why aren’t these people buying houses instead of renting them?’”

Charmelus came to Chattanooga from Brooklyn, New York, where she earned a degree in international management and worked for Citibank. While her background in finance equipped her to counsel others, her passion for elevating the Black community motivated her to reach out to those she says needed help.

Despite her confidence in her credentials, Charmelus knew her work would be difficult. Many of the people she approached were in severe financial straits, lacked a budget and didn’t understand how to save money.

Fear was a factor, as well, Charmelus adds.

“Even the ones who were able to afford a home were afraid to take that step because they thought once they bought a house it would collapse and it would be their responsibility to fix it,” she says.

Determined to show her husband’s congregants a better way, Charmelus pulled out all the stops. When someone agreed to let her help, she would take over their finances, make arrangements with their creditors and teach them how to create and adhere to a budget, she says.

Charmelus also taught them how to expand their perspective beyond the week-to-week mentality.

“I said, ‘If you put everything you earn on paper, you’ll be amazed at how much money you make in a year,’” she says. “A lot of people get paid weekly and then go about their business; they don’t think about what they make over the course of a year.”

The couple Charmelus mentioned earlier were among those who embraced her help.

“I went to them and said, ‘You can’t continue to live like you are. You have children, so you have to think about the future.’”

Charmelus also promised them they would be able to afford a home in nine months.

After the couple agreed to let her take over their finances, she was unyielding in her management of their money. Not only did the husband and wife turn over their credit cards to her, but they also allowed her to pay their bills and place them on a strict budget that allocated specific amounts for each item.

“I was able to do that because they trusted me,” Charmelus says.

Charmelus refused to budge from her plan. When the couple ran out of diapers for their son and asked her for more money, she refused to give it to them.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but you’ve spent your allowance.’ That’s how strict I was.”

It wasn’t an easy road for the couple or Charmelus to travel. Charmelus says one of the obstacles she faced when she began counseling people was the notion that paying a bill is like dropping money on a sidewalk. When she would insist someone needed to pay their electric bill because they had used the electricity, they rejected her logic.

So, she switched tactics and started saying paying a bill was like putting money in a savings account.

“I started to say, ‘When you pay your electric bill, it’s like putting money in a credit score bank. As you do that, your credit goes up, and you earn the opportunity to receive more money to do what you need to do.’”

Despite having to swallow bitter medicine, the couple persevered, and within nine months Charmelus had paid their debts. Their credit score had climbed from less than 500 to 635.

The couple also trusted Charmelus when she advised them to leave their days of renting a home behind and buy a house. After they secured approval for a loan, she found them a place that cost $72,000.

Their monthly payment was around $500, which was close to what they were spending on rent.

Charmelus smiles as she says the couple still owns the house and is living there over 10 years later.

Many other parishioners from Vision Ministries traveled the same path as the couple, and like them, now own a home. Today, only a handful of the church’s members are renters.

Some even own an investment property, Charmelus says. “I taught them to buy a duplex, and then live on one side while renting the other.”

While it took the couple Charmelus helped only nine months to become solvent, it has taken others longer, she says. In some cases, she’s worked with individuals or couples for as long as four years before they were able to afford a home.

But because of her desire to help people rise above their circumstances, Charmelus persists in helping them – free of charge.

Now the children of some of these people are asking Charmelus to be their Realtor as they begin the journey to homeownership – a journey she hopes will put a dent in the disparity between the number of Black and white homeowners across the country.

This warms her heart, as she says seeing a family establish a history of homeownership from generation to generation means more to her than her commission.

As Charmelus knows all too well, it just takes hard work, dedication and sometimes being creative when it comes to diapering a newborn.

“If someone is serious about working on their issues, then they can turn things around.”