DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Even before becoming a police officer, Monica Lee always thought of Wonder Woman as a role model.

“She stands up for what’s right, she’s a hero,” Lee said of the DC Comics character.

What You Need To Know

  • The HELPER Act would ease path to own home for first responders, educators

  • It would create a home loan program just for those groups

  • The bill would put fewer restrictions on location of home being purchased

  • The measure began as an initiative introduced by Marine vet Sam Royer

That’s why today Lee, a training officer for the Daytona Beach Police Department, sports a Wonder Woman badge on her bulletproof vest. It’s a reminder of the strength Lee and her colleagues in law enforcement must summon daily to do their jobs — jobs that place officers in dangerous situations, and their family members in a never-ending state of uncertainty.

“It’s a constant, everyday thing,” Lee said. “It’s almost like their minds don’t rest, either.”

It’s especially hard to leave her family behind during hurricane deployments, she said.

“Our lives are not normal as law enforcement officers, and it’s very unpredictable,” Lee said. “You never know what you’re going to face, day in and day out.”

‘Homes for every local protector, educator and responder’

Despite the unpredictability of the job, Lee and her family have one thing they can count on: a home of their own. That’s because Lee’s also an Army veteran and was able to take advantage of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ home loan program 11 years ago, when she became a homeowner. Through that program, veterans can purchase a home more affordably: for example, the VA doesn’t require them to make a down payment, or acquire private mortgage insurance.

But Lee’s homeownership story isn’t the norm for all police officers. On the contrary, Lee said the low starting salaries most officers initially earn can make it very difficult to save for a home.

“I have a lot of co-workers and friends from other agencies who live in apartments and aren't able to take that first step in purchasing a home because of a down payment, or just … not being able to afford it,” Lee said.

It’s why Marine veteran Sam Royer recently introduced The HELPER Act initiative, now a House bill he said would create “homes for every local protector, educator and responder.”

The bill, originally sponsored by Rep. John Rutherford of Jacksonville (FL-District 4), would create a specific home loan program under the Federal Housing Administration for police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and educators. Sen. Marco Rubio is set to introduce a companion Senate bill very soon, the senator’s office confirmed Tuesday by email.

Royer said he wants the bill to provide those designated first responders with the same benefits already granted to military veterans. 

“I never served in combat,” Royer said of his time as a corporal in the Marine Corps. “And when I have a police officer sitting across from me, and they’re in basically a bulletproof vest and they have a gun that they have to carry every day, I just saw a need that we had to find a way to get them in their homes much more [affordably].”

People working as public school teachers or in law enforcement often have to make ends meet by picking up second jobs, or working excessive hours — if they’re even allowed overtime, Royer said.

“People that serve in law enforcement, educators and firefighting — they don’t get in these jobs to become millionaires,” Royer said. “They get in because they have a love for their community.”

If passed, Royer said his HELPER Act would ultimately help first responders purchase affordable homes in the same communities where they serve. 

“At the end of the day, that’s kind of our country’s way of saying ‘thank you’ for what they do,” Royer said.

Currently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Good Neighbor Next Door program offers first responders the chance to save significantly on a home purchase, if they buy homes in certain “revitalization areas.” Royer said while the HUD program is well-intended, his HELPER Act would provide first responders many more home purchase options without any geographical restrictions.

‘It’s a calling’

Lee said she originally wanted to be an attorney but was motivated to pursue a military career after the devastating events of September 11, 2001.

“Four months later, I left for boot camp,” Lee said. She went on to become a military police officer, later serving three years of active duty for the U.S. Army before transitioning to become a civilian officer.

Lee said many law enforcement officers pick up second jobs so they can afford to support their families while continuing to serve their communities. They do so because “it’s a calling for them,” Lee said.

“They want to keep their law enforcement job, not to be millionaires, but because they have a passion and the heart to want to be in law enforcement,” Lee said. 

It’s that same passion that led Lee to identify with Wonder Woman, and pursue a lifelong career in law enforcement. 

“Just like Wonder Woman, I wanted to stand up for what’s right,” Lee said. “I want to help the community.”

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.