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Hometown Heroes Loan Program: Learn How to Get up to a $25,000 Grant in Columbia County, Florida

As many people consider moving to Florida, housing prices are at an all-time high. Median home prices across Floridian counties exceed what most residents can afford to spend on a residential property. Even frontline workers who have helped keep the state together at trying times face financial difficulties while buying homes.

For the past few years, attention has been drawn to the state government on how they can help these frontline workers realize their homeownership dreams. The state legislators even passed a bill to offer funding assistance for these workers to afford homes. This legislation seems to have worked after the Hometown Heroes Loan Program was conceptualized.

Hometown Heroes is a home financing program targeting frontline community workers in Florida. Eligible applicants from all counties in the sunshine state can apply for the grant. This guide specifically focuses on how you can qualify for a $25,000 grant as a critical worker based in Columbia County, FL:

What is the Hometown Heroes Loan Program?

Also known as Hometown Heroes, the Hometown Heroes Loan Program is a home financing program established to enable frontline community workers to afford the homebuying process. It is administered by FL Housing (the Florida Housing Finance Corporation) to offer down payment and closing costs assistance to qualifying applicants. The program also offers a low-interest mortgage to eligible first-time homebuyers.

Hometown Heroes is disbursed through FL Housing’s partnership with various mortgage lenders. These participating lenders ensure that the loans are originated, underwritten, closed, funded, and delivered to the beneficiaries.

Hometown Heroes Income Limits for Columbia County, Fl

Hometown Heroes only considers frontline community workers whose incomes are within certain county limits. If you are a Columbia County, FL resident, your annual income should be $118,950 and below for you to stand a chance of getting the home financing.

You can get the loan from USDA-RD and FHA programs at a maximum loan limit of $420,680. The VA, HFA Advantage, and HFA Preferred programs can offer you a loan of up to $647,200. Here’s a brief breakdown of these loan offerings:

  • FL HFA Advantage - A conventional loan offering by Freddie Mac with reduced-cost mortgage insurance for loans below 80 percent AMI, down payment assistance, and a 30-year fixed rate.

  • HFA Preferred Heroes for TBA - A conventional loan offering by Fannie Mae that allows you to enjoy reduced mortgage insurance premiums for loans under 80 percent AMI, down payment assistance, and a fixed 30-year rate.

  • Florida First Heroes - A loan offering encompassing FHA, USDA-RD, and VA loan programs with down payment assistance and a fixed 30-year rate.

Requirements to Meet for a First Mortgage in Columbia County, FL

Hometown Heroes can only entitle you to a first mortgage if you are a certified or licensed frontline community worker in Florida. The program also mandates you to submit a VOE (Verification of Employment) and copies of your work license or certificate to prove that you have an eligible occupation.

You may apply for Hometown Heroes if you are already enlisted in a different loan program offering down payment assistance. However, the agency that sponsors that down payment assistance program needs to be your third lien in your application for a Hometown Heroes mortgage.

The loan program has a 60-day deadline that you should use to lock in a favorable interest rate for your first mortgage. It also offers a 45-day deadline to book the residential property you would want to finance with the loan. Failing to stick to these timelines will result in cancellation, reprising, and extension costs.

Qualifying for a $25,000 Grant in Columbia County, FL

One thing that sets Hometown Heroes apart from other housing assistance programs is that its loan process is more straightforward and takes less time. In the first stages of this loan process, the participating lender will underwrite the loan based on your creditworthiness. They will ask you to present an executed sales agreement for the home you wish to purchase to verify your eligibility before you lock in a rate.

FL Housing demands that you intend to use the residential property as your primary residence to get the loan. You must also use the loan as a purchase-only mortgage rather than a cash refinance. The window for moving into the house as your primary residence once the loan has been closed is 60 days.

Debt-to-Income (DTI) and Credit Score Requirements

For the FHA, VA, USDA-RD, and HFA Preferred for TBA to back your Hometown Heroes loan, you need a credit score of 640. A credit score of 680 is also needed if you want these loan programs to back a loan used to buy a manufactured home.

The debt-to-income ratio requirements for FHA and VA is 50 percent, while that of USDA is 45 percent. A DTI of 45 percent is needed when taking a Fannie Mae-backed loan with a credit score of over 680. You will also need a DTI of 45 percent for the same offering if your credit score ranges from 640 to 679.

Under the Freddie Mac offerings, the maximum DTI for a credit score of 680 is 50 percent. The DTI will also be 45 percent of your credit score, ranging from 640 to 679.

Hometown Heroes Eligible Occupations

Hometown Heroes only considers frontline community workers in specific fields for the down payment and closing cost assistance. These occupations include sworn law enforcement officers, juvenile probation officers, juvenile detention officers, certified corrections officers, and correctional probation officers.

The loan program may consider you if you work in various positions in the immediate accident or emergency response sectors. These positions include firefighter, emergency medical technician, paramedic, and 911, public safety communicator. You may also be enlisted for funding when working as a school counselor, media specialist, librarian, social worker, classroom teacher, school psychologist, or career specialist.

You can also apply for the loan if you work in the medicine and healthcare sectors as a registered nurse, practical nurse, nursing assistant, childcare operator, or childcare instructor. Occupations like a podiatrist, osteopath, chiropractor, pharmacist, midwife, physician, dentist, and anaesthesiologist can also get you enlisted for Hometown Heroes.

Other eligible occupations for the loan program include nutritionist, speech-language pathologist, nursing home administrator, athletic trainer, and massage therapist. The program also caters to critical workers in psychology, radiology, orthotics, veterinary, and prosthetics, provided they meet the county income limits.

Requirements for Active-Duty Military Personnel and Veterans

Active-duty military personnel and veterans are considered Hometown Heroes since they are critical workers. The good thing about being a veteran or military member is that you won’t have to prove to the lenders that you are a first-time homebuyer to get the mortgage. If you currently serve in any military field, all you need to get started with the loan process is a copy of your work ID.

As a veteran, you need proof of an honorable discharge at the time you served in the military to get the down payment and closing cost assistance. You must also present a valid COE (Certificate of Eligibility) to the mortgage lender to verify your eligibility status. Hometown Heroes is also available to surviving spouses of veterans through the VA if they prove their eligibility.

Gateway to historic downtown Lake City in Columbia County Florida

Cost of Living in Columbia County, FL

The overall cost of living (with a score of 84.7) in Columbia County, FL, is lower than the national and state averages (100 and 102.8, respectively). Groceries are also more affordable (with an affordability score of 98.4) in this county than in Florida (102.8) and the entire country (100). Expect to spend much more on health (108.1) than other parts of Florida (whose average is 98) and the country (100).

Housing prices in Columbia County are way lower (a score of 62.8) compared to other parts of Florida (102.6) and the country (100). The county’s median home cost is $184,200, while the statewide and nationwide averages are $294,900 and $291,700, respectively.

Columbia County has a favorable job market, which grew by 0.2 percent in the past year and is expected to grow by 30.5 percent. The sales tax rate is 7 percent (compared to the US average of 7.3 percent), while the income tax rate is 0 percent (compared to the US average of 4.6 percent).

Residents in this county have an average income of $19,884 a year, which is lower than the nationwide average of $28,555 a year. Even more, the median household income of $39,194 a year is lower than the US average of $53,482 yearly.

Best Places to Buy a Home in Columbia County, FL

Columbia County is a county with beautiful natural springs situated in the north-central part of Florida. It has a population of 70,898 as of 2020, while its county seat is Lake City. Towns/cities such as Lake City, Watertown, Five Points, and Fort White are favorable for homebuyers as discussed below:

Lake City

With a population of 12,329, Lake City offers a sparse suburban feel and is inviting to retirees and families. It is also part of the Lake City Micropolitan Statistical Area. The median home value in Lake City is $106,800, which is lower than the national average of $217,500.


As a census-designated place in Columbia County, FL, Watertown is a town offering a mix of suburban and rural life. The town has a population of 3,082, with most residents owning their homes. Residential properties in Watertown have a median home value of $105,700, making them more affordable than other parts of the country, where the average home value is $217,500.

Five Points

Five Points is a vibrant town in Columbia County that qualifies as a census-designated place. Its population is 1,393, while the median home value is $162,100. Five Points offers a mix of suburban and rural feel, with most residents being homeowners.

Fort White

Named after a military fort constructed in the 1830s, Fort White is a town with a suburban and rural feel. The town has a population of 695, encompassing primarily homeowners. Residential properties have a median value of $167,900, making them more affordable than the national average of $217,500.

Best Public and Private Schools in Columbia County, FL

As of 2022, there are 22 public schools with a student enrollment of 10,187 in Columbia County, FL. Based on their combined reading and math proficiency test scores, the high-ranking public schools in this county include Belmont Academy, Westside Elementary School, and Pinemount Elementary Schools.

Public schools in Columbia County, FL, have a reading proficiency score of 57 percent (versus the statewide average of 56 percent). They also have a math proficiency score of 63 percent (versus the 63 percent average of Florida public schools). With a 7/10 average ranking, these schools rank in the top 50 percent of public schools in the Sunshine State.

The minority enrollment in these schools of 36 percent of the student body (mostly black) is lower than the statewide average of 62 percent (primarily Hispanic). Here are the best five public schools with their math and reading proficiency scores:

  • Belmont Academy (a charter school with a Math score of 85 percent and a reading score of 85 percent)
  • Pinemount Elementary School (math and reading scores of 81 percent and 74 percent, respectively)
  • Westside Elementary School (math score of 77 percent and reading score of 73 percent)
  • Eastside Elementary School (math and reading scores of 79 percent and 71 percent)
  • Columbia City Elementary School (math score of 70 percent and reading score of 64 percent)

Best Private Schools in Columbia County, FL

Columbia County, FL, had a record number of 11 private schools with a student enrollment of 972 in 2022. Ninety-one percent of these schools are religiously affiliated with Baptist and Christian institutions. The best top-ranked private school in this country is Lake City Chrisitan Academy, based on its academic performance.

Private schools in Columbia County have an average acceptance rate of 83 percent. This acceptance rate is lower than the statewide average of 86 percent. The top five best private schools in the county include:

  • Lake City Christian Academy (a Christian school admitting students from grades PK to 12)
  • A Plus Learning Academy (that admits students from grades 2 to 12)
  • Cambridge Prep Academy (a Montessori and Christian school admitting students from preschool to grade 12)
  • Covenant Community School (a Christian school admitting students from PK to grade 12)
  • Epiphany Catholic School (a Catholic school that admits students from kindergarten to grade 8)

What Makes Columbia County, FL Ideal for Families or Young Professionals?

Columbia County has always been welcoming to visitors since the early 1800s. Though it’s traditionally known to be a rural agricultural hub, it has a growing retail and industrial presence. Over the years, the county has witnessed great investments in business resources, local infrastructure, and utilities to favor both families and young professionals.

As a resident in this county, you get to enjoy an affordable quality of life and cost of living. Extensive city amenities lie closer to the county if you want a livelier experience. You also get easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and Orlando-based Disney World.

The weather in Columbia County, FL, is favorable all year round. It makes outdoor activities such as cycling, hiking, and walking in nearby state parks and national forests convenient. There are also great rivers and lakes for water skiing, canoeing, swimming, and fishing, making the area renowned as the Freshwater Recreation Capital of America.

Which Cities/Towns in Columbia County, FL are Covered by the Hometown Heroes Loan Program

Lake City (the county seat) is the only city in the county, while Fort White is the only town in the county. Both of them are covered under Hometown Heroes.

Census-designated places that are considered in the program include Watertown and Five Points. Similarly, Winfield, Newco, Pikeville, Lulu, and Columbia City are the unincorporated communities covered by Hometown Heroes.

Summing up

Hometown Heroes is a testament that the Florida state government values the contribution of frontline community workers such as police officers, nurses, firefighters, and teachers. It’s no secret that these hometown heroes are the backbone of communities in the Sunshine State. To recognize their contribution to society, Hometown Heroes ensures that they can afford to buy homes in their journey of realizing the American Dream.

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