Amid soaring Bay Area housing prices and a tightening home market for blue collar workers, the Wells Fargo Foundation announced Wednesday a $9.5 million program to aid first-time buyers with down payments.

Low and moderate income families in the Bay Area will be eligible for the $25,000 grants, part of a long-running, nationwide program by a charitable branch of the San Francisco-based bank. The program, known as NeighborhoodLIFT, is expected to assist 359 residents next year earning less than the median household income make down payments on homes in San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Solano, Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said the grants will help struggling renters make the move into homeownership. “We talk about the deepening divide in the Bay Area and we’ve seen it so much more acutely during the pandemic,” Liccardo said. “We know that divide has gotten broader and deeper.”

The Bay Area has the highest housing costs in the U.S., boosted by high tech professional salaries, a growing economy and a short supply of new housing. Home prices have risen for nearly a decade in even the most affordable communities. The rising costs have hit lower income workers hard. About 1 in 4 Bay Area residents pay more than half their income on housing, according to a recent Harvard University study.

Wells Fargo established the charitable program in 2012, focusing on different U.S. cities every year. The nonprofit program previously was open to Bay Area residents in 2012 and 2017. The charitable foundation has lowered the grants from $30,000 individual awards in 2017. The bank believes many buyers will also be able to tap state, local and other charitable funds for down payments.

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The new round of funding includes $525,000 to support community organizations offering personal financial counseling.

Applications may be submitted Feb. 1, 2021. Eligible buyers must make less than 80 percent of a county’s median household income, about $95,360 in Alameda, $95,360 in Contra Costa, $112,720 in San Francisco and San Mateo, $111,840 in Santa Clara and $76,320 in Solano.

To receive grants, applicants must complete first-time homebuyer classes. The grants require buyers to live in the home for at least 5 years to keep the entire award. Sellers leaving before the five-year term must repay a pro-rated portion of the grant. The bank has set up a website with detailed information and updates.

Montie Cross, a retiree from IBM, received a grant in 2017. She bought a three-bedroom condo in Fairfield for $210,000, and moved in with her two adult sons.

The life-long renter dreamed of owning her own home. “I just pay my mortgage,” she said, “and it’s mine.”