Sylvia Thompson waited patiently Thursday for a technician to install a new air conditioning unit in her modest St. Petersburg home. Not a life changing moment for most people, but it sure is for Thompson.

She has two adult sons, both disabled, and one of them is prone to seizures in the summer heat.

“My youngest son, he’s got epilepsy so it’s very important for me to have it for him,” Thompson said.

Purchasing a new A/C system was impossible for Thompson until she found out about the SELF Home Improvement Financing Program, a nonprofit initiative tailored to help working class homeowners just like her.

SELF managers say they’ve helped 850 homeowners finance $7.4 million worth of renovations in 25 Florida counties.

“Because we’re a nonprofit, we’re not trying to push loans on people who can’t afford it. Quite the opposite,” said SELF CEO Doug Coward.

“We’re actually building a loan around their ability to pay as opposed to pushing a loan on them that’s beyond their means.”

Coward says SELF is funded by government grants, churches and private investors and now has partnership agreements with the City of St. Petersburg and Hillsborough County.

An 8 On Your Side investigation of the unrelated PACE home improvement financing program uncovered a number of unscrupulous contractors and loan providers who seemed eager to burden homeowners with long term loans they couldn’t afford, a debt that showed up as a special assessment on their property taxes.

Pasco County started cracking down on PACE contractors and loan providers after our investigation and Hillsborough is now conducting a comprehensive review of PACE consumer safeguards.

Unlike PACE, SELF loans are not tied to property taxes or secured by homes and can’t lead to foreclosure if homeowners fall behind on their payments. Managers say there’s another big difference.

SELF is focused on help not profit.

“Our main objective is to work for local property owners,” Coward said.

Both PACE and SELF work with an approved list of contractors, but SELF also manages the projects it funds and refuses to do business with contractors that overcharge.

Thompson is paying a total of $8,034, including finance costs, for her A/C.

Our 8 On Your Side investigation found some PACE contractors charging as much as $30,000 for A/C and in one case, more than $125,000 for A/C, insulation and a roof.

“Truthfully, I’m sickened by it. The folks that we’re trying to help are some of the most vulnerable population,” Coward said.

Coward says his organization also arranges PACE loans in St. Lucie County but they are the only nonprofit PACE provider in Florida and weed out contractors who gouge homeowners.

PACE loans can run as long as 20 years but SELF is limited to a 7 year payback schedule, which may not fit everyone’s needs. But Thompson says her $134 monthly payment fits her needs perfectly.

Thompson still needs a roof replacement and a new ramp for her son’s wheelchair that she currently can’t afford, but at least her sons and the two young nephews she babysits no longer have to swelter in the summer heat.

“Because of my son, that’s one reason I wanted it done,” Thompson said. “I mean, I needed other work done but that was top priority, my air conditioner, to get it done for my son.”

You can contact SELF by going to its website or by calling 727-315-3223 in St. Pete or 813-900-2237 in Tampa.