Dreaming of a home -- with hard work ahead

Single mother Denise Ryan wants to own a house in the worst way.

But Ryan, born with spina bifida, collects $715 a month in disability benefits and Social Security. The 25-year-old Boston resident is a scholarship student at Bunker Hill Community College, preparing to enter the school's nursing program, but the prospects for full-time employment are constrained by her health. She suffers from chronic kidney infections and has undergone six surgeries. She is also the primary caretaker of 3-year-old Phoenix, her miracle son, as she calls him.

Ryan, who now receives Section 8 rental assistance, was homeless in 2004, living in four different shelters. ''It is very, very tiring. Me, I can handle it. I don't want to put my son through that again," she said.

Her dream is to buy a three-family house and gather her extended family, a brother, sister, and 57-year-old mother --a doting grandmother to Phoenix -- under one roof.

The Boston Globe paired up Ryan with Sharon Rich, a fee-only financial planner, whose Belmont firm,Womoney, specializes in financial counseling for women. A meticulous reckoning of Ryan's income and expenses showed that due mainly to $7,000 still owed on a repossessed car, she has a negative net worth of $1,399.

Her main asset is $9,300 still owed in child support, but the father makes payments only intermittently. Between Social Security, disability, and child support Ryan has yearly income of $16,820, but her expenses leave her only $36 a month for savings. Buying a home would seem out of reach, but Rich was reluctant to call the situation hopeless.

''If anyone in your income situation is going to be able to get a home, it's you because of your attitude -- an amazing, amazing attitude," Rich said. ''I'm not going to tell you can't have a house, but it's probably going to take awhile."

Ryan is exceedingly resourceful. She earned a homebuyer's certificate from a city program that provides a 10 percent down payment and another $1,500 for other costs if she qualifies for a mortgage. She has worked the social safety net, procuring food stamps, free dental care, and heating assistance. Phoenix is in a Head Start program. When her son's father did not pay child support, she engaged Greater Boston Legal Services to take her case, recently winning a court order for the back payments, or $137 weekly.

''I don't take no for an answer," Ryan said. ''They told me I would never have a baby, and if I did, I would be on bed rest. I put myself through school when I was pregnant and was on the Dean's List. When I asked them for child care assistance, so I could go back to school, they told me, 'you're disabled, you don't need to do anything but sit at home.' I said, 'I don't think so.' "

Rich offered a plan of attack. Ryan needs to clean up her credit report, making an effort to pay down old debts and, if possible, offer a lump sum settlement on the car. She should check into details about how her Section 8 subsidy can be applied to homeownership and whether she would have to pay principal mortgage insurance. She needs to pay her parking tickets, so her car will not be booted, and guard against accumulating new debt.

When Ryan's credit report is cleaner, she should talk to lenders about what it would take to get a mortgage, but Rich also said there are other ways to create housing security. ''Maybe you don't need to own," she said. One of her family members could own and she could use her Section 8 to live with them.

''You're on track," Rich said. ''Where you're going to end up, we're not sure. But I wouldn't be surprised if four years later, you said 'this and this happened and I now own a house with my mother.' "

To be considered for a Money Makeover, fill out the form at the ''Your Money" section of, or call 617-929-2916 and ask for an application.