Posted on January 29, 2021
BOSTON --- Thirty years ago today, Florence Hagins was the first person to buy a home with a SoftSecond Loan.
Little did she know that over 23,000 first-time buyers would follow and the program – now called ONE Mortgage – would become the state’s most affordable mortgage program for low- and moderate-income households and for people of color. And not just because she was the first but because she went on to play a crucial role in building the program.
Today, we celebrate her story.
Hagins was born in Roxbury in 1948. She grew up in the Whittier public housing development and graduated from Jamaica Plain High. She worked in the health care field and raised her daughter Andrea.
By 1990, she had saved enough to buy a two-family home she liked on Jones Hill in Dorchester. She applied for a mortgage but was denied because the bank’s insurer thought she was not a good risk.
Two days later, she got a call from an organizer at the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA). They had met a few weeks earlier at an information session held in a church basement on Talbot Ave. There, she met other women who wanted to buy homes. Together they heard about a new mortgage program being created by MAHA, MHP, the state, the City of Boston and Mass. Bankers Association to address racial discrimination in mortgage lending. It wasn't ready yet but sounded promising.
In the phone call after Hagins had been denied a mortgage, the MAHA organizer told her SoftSecond had just launched and would she like to apply? “It was on a Wednesday that I got the denial letter. On Friday I got a call from MAHA,” she told Banker and Tradesman in 2001. “By Sunday night, I was talking with someone from Shawmut Bank. I was thrilled.”
She bought her home and then she got involved. She started volunteering at MAHA and eventually left her health care job after 23 years to join the MAHA staff, where she counseled thousands of first-time homebuyers and created the post-purchasing counseling program called HomeSafe. She loved it. “It was a good feeling when I would see people again and they would tell me they just bought a house,“ she once said. “It was almost like me buying my house all over again.”
She also became an advocate, along with a nucleus of other Boston women pushing for more homeownership opportunities. Hagins proved to be born for that too, according to a Commonwealth Magazine story written by MAHA Executive Director Tom Callahan and then-board chair Esther Maycock-Thorne (now Dupie) shortly after Hagins' death in 2015. In that story, they wrote:
"A few months after closing on her home, she began volunteering her time at MAHA’s classes for first-time buyers. She would tell them if she could buy a house as a single mom with a modest salary, they could too. She agreed to keep coming and keep preaching the gospel of homeownership to anyone willing to listen and follow her sage advice, including tips for squirreling away money, little by little. Pack your lunch. Drive by that coffee shop instead of driving-through. Stop going to Foxwoods. And by the way, if you think the banks will keep doing these programs if community residents don’t speak up, then you don’t know how the world works. We have to fight to keep this program going, she believed. Over the ensuing 14 years, Florence would go on to become a force to be reckoned with in Boston, going toe to toe with bank presidents and politicians in an effort to win for others the same chance to secure a piece of the American dream that she had long thought was out of her reach."
“Florence left an indelible legacy,” said Robert K. Sheridan, president emeritus of Savings Bank Life Insurance and former president of the Mass. Bankers Association. “Bankers would initially fear her, then come to respect her, and eventually embrace everything she was about.”
The numbers are part of Hagins' legacy and the program's long-term impact. SoftSecond and ONE Mortgage have combined to help over 23,000 households across Massachusetts purchase their first home. The median household income of those buyers is $50,000 and half of the first-time buyers are people of color. It is offered by more than 43 lenders statewide. In Boston, the program has made over 5,700 loans, 57 percent to people of color.
In 2020, ONE made 748 loans statewide, 60 percent to people of color. Of the 93 loans made in Boston, 80 percent to people of color. In gateway cities, 80 percent of the 282 loans went to people of color. In 2020, the program launched ONE+Boston, which is using $8 million in city funds to buy down interest rates and provide down-payment assistance to Boston residents buying in the city. So far, 94 percent of the 32 loans made have gone to people of color.
Her legacy lives on
Hagins retired from MAHA in 2005 and died in 2015, but her memory lives on. MAHA’s headquarters on Dorchester Ave. is called the Sheridan-Hagins Homeownership Center and 23,000 first-time buyers have followed her path. Many of them received her advice as well.
"Since Florence bought her home, banks and credit unions have since provided $4.2 billion in low down-payment ONE mortgages with below-market interest rates and without the cost of private mortgage insurance," said MHP Executive Director Clark Ziegler. "Most loans have been made to historically underserved borrowers and neighborhoods. None of this would happen without the grit and determination of people like Florence. We miss her."
When asked to reflect on the 30th anniversary of Hagins buying her home and what she would be feeling is she were alive today, MAHA’s Tom Callahan wrote:
“Florence would be shining in this moment. Being a Black woman, growing up in public housing, being turned down for a mortgage because of ‘traditional’ lending criteria, she was the embodiment of why there is a racial homeownership gap. She worked so hard to do something about that gap both at the grassroots level where she taught thousands of people how to become a homeowner and the system level where she fought with bankers and governors alike until they saw the light. She would see this time as an opportunity. She was always a glass half full type. She understood that to make real progress, you had to change the minds of the people sitting at the head of the table. I would like to think she would smile knowing about MAHA's new first-generation matched savings program and definitely know she would love ONE+Boston. But she wouldn't like the fact that we haven't had a class in her building in almost a year! In short, she would be leading us in challenging everyone to do more. We have to, she would say.”
(MHP's Isabel Cruz contributed to this story. She is a program manager for the ONE Mortgage Program).