July 31--When Mercy Ambat was sworn in as a deputy sheriff in 2005, she decided San Francisco is where she belongs.
But for the past three years, Ambat has been renting a house in San Mateo County, priced out of the city she serves and loves.
That could change for Ambat and dozens of other San Francisco sheriff's deputies, firefighters, paramedics and police officers who hope to qualify for a new taxpayer-funded down-payment loan assistance program targeted at first responders. Paid for by a city housing program created by voters under Proposition C last year, the program will allow active personnel of the police, fire and sheriff's departments to apply for up to $100,000 in down-payment assistance for a principal residence in San Francisco.
Supporters hope it will increase the number of first responders who live within the city, saying it's important in the case of a disaster and helps foster a sense of community. If she qualifies, Ambat hopes to buy a condo near Candlestick Park.
"One of the proudest moments of my life was when former Sheriff Mike Hennessey swore me in as a peace officer of San Francisco" in 2005, Ambat said. "That day I decided San Francisco is where I want to live. This is where I belong. ... Many of us want to live in the city and provide services to the city, but have been forced out and have to live somewhere else."
City officials announced the program's parameters Tuesday, after months of negotiations between the Mayor's Office of Housing, Supervisor Mark Farrell, unions representing first responders and low-income housing advocates.
Under the terms announced this week, the city workers will have to make less than 200 percent of the San Francisco County median income -- or less than about $200,000 a year for a family of four -- to qualify. Applicants cannot have owned any interest in a home in San Francisco over the past three years, cannot own any interest in any other homes at the close of escrow, and cannot have liquid assets above $100,000 after they purchase the property. The loan is deferred for 30 years, unless the house is sold, transferred or rented -- or if the member leaves city service within five years.
Farrell had initially proposed allowing an income cap of 250 percent of the area median income, or around $250,000 a year for a family of four. Housing advocates argued that was too high. They also wanted to see a purchase price limit, a requirement that the buyer not own property elsewhere, and the program extended to all city workers.
While the program is limited to police, fire and sheriff's personnel, Myrna Melgar, deputy director of the Mission Economic Development Agency said advocates are happy overall with the program's requirements.
"We still think it should be expanded beyond police and firefighters to the rest of the first responders, like nurses and 911 operators," she said. "But we got everything else we wanted."
Farrell said he believes city officials "found a true middle ground." He and Olson Lee, director of the Mayor's Office of Housing, stressed Tuesday that the first year is a pilot and the program can be adjusted in the future.
Farrell said having high enough income limits and enough assistance is important to allow as many people as possible to qualify. A former program that offered just $20,000 in down payment assistance "wasn't effective and as a result went unspent and unused, and police officers continued to leave the city to find homes elsewhere," he said.
This time, however, more than 45 police, fire and sheriff's personnel have already expressed interest in applying.
"The majority of first responders live outside our city limits. Our community is strengthened by having the people who put their lives on the line every day ... living in the neighborhoods of San Francisco," Farrell said. "When the next big one hits we need to be ready to respond here."
Mayor Ed Lee agreed.
"We want everyone here who wants to be here," he said. "We will adjust this program along the way to make sure it works effectively."
The city will post details at www.sf-moh.org by Thursday on how to qualify and apply, said Olson Lee. There may be a lottery this first year, he said, because of the amount of interest. Under Prop. C, the city will set aside up to $1 million a year for the program for the first five years; but as people begin to pay back their loans, the fund will grow, he said.
In total, the housing trust fund created by Prop. C will invest an estimated $1.5 billion in housing over the next 30 years, including the development of affordable housing, down-payment loan assistance for first responders and moderate-income residents, and a program to help keep distressed residents in their homes.
Marisa Lagos is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com