WilmingtonBiz Magazine

House Counsel: Affordable Housing Agency Chief Shares Her Take

By Allison Ballard, posted Apr 6, 2018
Toronya Ezell left the mortgage industry to help build affordable homes. (photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
Toronya Ezell came to AMEZ Housing Community Development Corp. through her work in the banking and mortgage industry and through Price Cathedral A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Wilmington.

Although she’s from Alabama, she moved to her mother’s hometown when her grandfather was ill and needed some extra care. When he was feeling better, she stayed here, looked for a job and eventually started working full time at First Union Mortgage Corp.

“I initially worked as a post-closer and then a closer for mortgage loans that were being obtained by employees of large corporations who had corporate accounts with us as a preferred lender,” she said.

That was in the early 2000s. Around the same time, her pastor was also board chairman for AMEZ Housing Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization founded 25 years ago by four local A.M.E. Zion congregations to address the need for affordable housing in Wilmington. He asked Ezell to be on the board.

“I knew that the organization was doing a lot in the community to assist people in purchasing their first home,” she said.

During the early part of the decade, she did what she could to help and learned more in the corporate world, eventually moving to Raleigh for a position in mortgage customer service.

When another lender wanted to purchase the First Union portfolio, layoffs began, and soon, it was Ezell’s turn. She moved back to Wilmington and continued to work in different industry positions. She was also becoming more interested in the work at AMEZ.

Linda Smith, one of the organization’s managers, encouraged her to become a certified housing counselor in 2005, in a program that consisted of counseling skills, mortgage lending, housing assistance and homebuyer education.

When a part-time position opened at the nonprofit, Ezell applied.

“I remember one of the first assignments that (Smith) gave me was to conduct the homebuyer education classes,” she said. “I was a little intimidated. Not because I wasn’t used to talking in front of groups of people, but providing educational instruction was different.”

Ezell continued to progress through AMEZ, which has changed and expanded its focus as the community’s need has evolved. The mission is the same, though, as it was when it was started by St. Luke, Warner Temple, St. Andrew and Price Cathedral churches.

The organization completed and sold its first house in October 1996, and, as of last year, the group’s tally of homes was 38.

Many of the lots it has developed are on Grace Street, which is also true of the organization’s proposed 39th and 40th home, which could be built this year.

“Some people don’t like the term affordable housing,” Ezell said. “But that’s what it is, and that’s what’s needed. These are homes for people in the labor force. They are medical personnel; they are teachers and law enforcement officers. Some people call it workforce housing.”

The organization would like to build more homes. They just need a place to do it.

“We are looking for land,” Ezell said, but it can be a challenge to find the right affordable sites.

Barriers to affordable housing are many, from an unfamiliarity with real estate and banking terminology to a lack of affordable properties where a potential homeowner’s wages could cover the costs of owning a home, she said.

“What does affordable housing mean? Many people don’t understand that if a household is paying more than 30 percent of its monthly income towards housing including utilities … that they are cost-burdened,” Ezell said.

AMEZ builds and renovates homes in Wilmington for first-time homebuyers who have decent credit histories, meet the income limits established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and satisfy other requirements. Participants also complete a homebuyer education class, which is offered in person once a month and online.

The organization also offers education for homeownership, financial literacy and rental issues. AMEZ has some rental units as well. Most of its work focuses on low-to- moderate earners, or those 80 percent or below median income, Ezell said.

The group’s Fair Housing Education program and Foreclosure Mitigation services are offered with no income limits.

Since 2012, AMEZ has helped almost 1,000 homeowners avoid foreclosure, by working with lenders and through state and federal foreclosure prevention funds.

When Smith retired as AMEZ’s executive director at the end of 2014, Ezell was hired in the position beginning the following January. Ezell has been a homeowner herself for almost 15 years.

“To tell you that the knowledge and experience that I gained from working in the industry prepared me for what would become the biggest purchase of my life would be a gross understatement,” she said. “I’m a believer in what we do. Homeownership is still one of the most viable methods to create long-term wealth.”

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