No one could have predicted that 2020 would bring new meaning to the beloved quote, ‘There’s no place like home!’ from the Wizard of Oz.  Facing an extraordinary global health crisis, Americans were quarantined to stay safe and figure out how they could work and go to school from the safety of their own personal space. Many people decided they needed a new home.

Against all odds, the housing market has been surging over the past year with record-low mortgage rates and record-high buyer demand. As a result, a wave of relocations especially to communities outside big cities were made possible by remote work.

This urgent need was not lost on the team at Chester Community Improvement Project (CCIP), a nonprofit organization that assists low- and moderate-income families with pre- and post-purchase home ownership counseling programs in the City of Chester and throughout Delaware County, PA. Founded in 1978, CCIP is a community-based housing development group focused on stabilizing communities with rehabilitated vacant properties as well as new construction.

Annette Pyatt is Executive Director and has been with the team since 1991.  Annette enjoys the diversity of the housing authority organization, construction project leadership and local partnerships.  She appreciates the chance “to see all sides of the city!”  She is a native of Chester, PA, with a history in the construction industry. Ms. Pyatt majored in Architectural Technology in a partner program with Cheyney and Temple Universities.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, first-time home buyers took a bus or drove to the office and sat down in person with Annette’s team members: Larry Douglas, Housing Program Manager, and Qaydir Jones, Counseling Intake Specialist. Clients reviewed the first-time buying process, step by step, to understand the agreement of sale, mortgage options, and their responsibilities at closing.  The CCIP team helped to set realistic expectations, answering buyers’ financing, budgeting, credit and homebuying process questions.

This one-on-one experience was invaluable. Anyone who owns a home remembers how overwhelming the purchase of your first house can be!

The Path to Success

When in-person visits were suspended and most agencies like CCIP were shut down, Annette took bold steps to take care of the clients and keep the program moving forward. “I appealed directly to Governor Wolf in Harrisburg, PA, to keep our doors open as ‘essential business’ when everything else was closing in March 2020.” Once that was settled, she and her team decided to pivot to a fully virtual service using phone, Google Meet, ZOOM technology and the CCIP website to communicate with home buyers.  However, the site was unreliable and out of date.

In April, Annette submitted a grant application to The Foundation for Delaware County for COVID-19 Relief funding support to help with re-opening the office. They introduced her to SCORE for mentoring help with digital marketing to learn how to strengthen CCIP’s connection with their communities – remotely. She wanted to update the organization’s website presence, communicate virtually with families seeking affordable homes and improve online fundraising efforts. Annette understands the value of a solid plan from years back when she launched her construction business. “SCORE helped me to learn how to prepare a clear and concise business plan and determine exactly what steps I needed to take to be successful.”

How SCORE Helped

After the first mentoring session, the top priorities were updating website functionality and improving content marketing strategy and tactics. Annette met with Mike DiLeo and Len Feehan from SCORE Chester and Delaware Counties. Mike’s finance and nonprofit organization experience and Len’s digital marketing skill were critical to this initiative.

CCIP’s website had been built with an outdated website platform causing the site not to open. Len guided Annette and her team to update the site’s layout and systems as well as add valuable content.  SCORE identified an experienced website developer to fix programming issues and ensure the site was safe and secure.

With the website working, Annette turned her focus to improving CCIP’s content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO).  She wanted to learn how to use SEO tactics so that CCIP would be found online by her target audience including local foundations that support nonprofit organizations. New content could be developed to encourage visitors to learn about “all the good CCIP does for the City of Chester and Delaware County.” SEO audits can be costly and the budget was limited.

Len introduced CCIP to a digital marketing agency startup that he was mentoring, The Marketing U. When the partners of the firm heard about CCIP, they wanted to help. Matt Reif and Sam Tigyer donated their time and experience to improve CCIP’s inbound marketing.  Since Marketing U targets construction and service contractors, it was a win-win partnership.

Today

CCIP continues to counsel and train virtually with a broader audience following COVID guidelines reaching clients via video, phone and email.  SCORE support of the website development and redesign enabled easy online access to important documents and helped to eliminate the cost and complexity of mailing.  Annette adds, “CCIP was able to have staff work safely in the office, while all the client services were remote. Some clients dropped off documents at curbside.”

With the support of The Foundation for Delaware County, private grants and the SBA PPP loan, the CCIP staff was able to thrive. Larry Douglas shares, “What impressed me was how quickly we could transition to ZOOM, conference calling, email and FAX. I thought it would be harder for us and the clients to make the transition!”

Above all, the team was able to address the increasing demand for first-time buyers seeking counseling services in the community.  Qaydir Jones is an employee and a resident in the City of Chester. Qaydir describes his experience: “My house is like heaven for me! It’s all mine.”  The market was very aggressive when he was in the buying process and some of his offers were denied. While this was discouraging, Qaydir “had trust in Larry and how he prepared me. CCIP treated me like Family…the same way they treat everyone.”

CCIP saw an influx of clients come through the housing counseling program during the pandemic – and eleven new home buyers: seven from the city of Chester and four from Delaware County.  Also, construction on four new homes was completed in 2020 despite a two-month shutdown of the project due to COVID-19. “This was a significant accomplishment in spite of the pandemic crisis.” says Annette.

CCIP is HUD (US Department of Housing and Urban Development) certified to provide educational workshops and counseling services about pre-purchase, default and delinquency to low- and moderate-income families and individual home buyers. In 2021, CCIP will be collaborating with The Foundation for Delaware County to present Financial Literacy training virtually for the first time, reaching a broad target population for both CCIP and The Foundation.

Paying It Forward

No one could have predicted a year like this.  CCIP reflects on the importance of keeping their doors open and their services available for their clients.

Home is always a special place. In 2020-2021, it was even more important!  Annette Pyatt tells us what keeps her so focused. “I love seeing a young child enter his/her new family home and picking out his/her own room!” Qaydir Jones talks about how proud he is of the agency.  “We have the heart for what we do! We care about the clients and our motto is: ‘You are a client for life’ with CCIP.”

Annette is a role model for women in business and for minority-led organizations.  She brings a lifetime of deep and broad business experience. She shares her insights for others taking the leap to leading or starting a business:

  • “Take advantage of the local services.  These professionals can put you in touch with others who can help you with what you need to do.”
  • “Spend the time to learn how to run a business and to do the work.”
  • “Pay it forward. Today, I mentor construction colleagues to give back.”
  • “Success for me at CCIP has come with the support, talent and results of a team and community collaborations. I can’t do it on my own. Larry has been with us for twenty plus years and was recognized by President Obama as a ‘2012 Champion of Change’ for his outstanding commitment and accomplishments. Qaydir has been with us since he was in middle school. Now, he’s a full-time counselor and home owner!”