Once tenants, now owners Advocates: Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore Inc. measures success on a house-by-house basis.

November 19, 1995|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

On Wednesday, workers tacked down the forest-green carpeting. By Friday, Rosene Fossett would cart some belongings across the newly built front porch. This week, she'll own the red brick rowhouse and forever leave behind a faulty furnace, leaking plumbing and her landlord.

In recent weeks, the landlord in her former neighborhood had become more attentive. But too late. Ms. Fossett had just bought her first house.

Now, surveying freshly painted walls and her choice of cabinets in the rowhouse in Coppin Heights, the former tenant looked back to the day she wandered into the local branch of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore Inc. and found a bit of hope.

The housing advocates had bought and renovated the three-bedroom house on Baker Street. At $58,000, Ms. Fossett will pay less in monthly mortgage payments than she paid in rent. Even when she had to embark on a new career after a plant closing claimed her job, the group refused to abandon her.

"I'm ecstatic. I'm excited. It's just going to be better," said Ms. Fossett, who will move to the neighborhood bordering Coppin State University with her daughter and granddaughter.

For Neighborhood Housing Services, one of the city's oldest private, nonprofit housing groups, Ms. Fossett's move represents another small victory in a string of many over two decades.

This has been the group's way, chipping away at seemingly insurmountable problems of crime, negligent landlords, middle-class flight and rundown, vacant properties by working with one house and one would-be homeowner at a time.

NHS stays away from the bigger, headline-grabbing projects, the Sandtown-Winchesters with hundreds of vacant homes, where resources would quickly be drained. Instead, the group looks to neighborhoods on the brink, those they can keep from teetering over the edge.

An affiliate of a national network started in Pittsburgh after the 1968 riots, NHS of Baltimore made Patterson Park its first city home in 1974. It since has branched into other neighborhoods, beginning with Govans. By linking residents, business and government, the group offers low-interest purchase and rehabilitation loans through an $8 million revolving loan fund, closing cost assistance, affordable -- and livable -- rental units, and rehabbed homes for sale.

Some of its most recent work has come in Irvington and Coppin Heights. During the past year, the staff has moved beyond Irvington to Yale Heights, Tremont, Allendale and Uplands. For the first time, NHS is exploring the idea of expanding outside the city.

Michael Braswell, NHS executive director for 15 years, likes to think of a particular neighborhood rather than a particular income class as his client. To turn around neighborhoods in decline, the group looks for creative ways to boost homeownership, help home- owners fix up properties and encourage owners of deteriorating rentals to clean up or sell.

Driving through NHS neighborhoods, Mr. Braswell points out some well-kept rowhouses that years ago got face-lifts thanks to NHS programs. Still in good shape today, they signal progress in an usually slow, frustrating process.

"Neighborhoods go downhill over many years," Mr. Braswell said. "You don't turn them around overnight either. But you can't not keep at it."

Since NHS came to Baltimore, it has rehabbed more than 620 vacant houses, converted more than 900 renters to first-time homeowners, and packaged more than 2,000 mortgages and renovation loans. It also offered technical assistance to projects run by other nonprofits and government agencies, resulting in 74 housing units and three shelters. Success has come in many cases because of a strong partnership with lending institutions, a relationship cultivated from the group's earliest days in the city.

While Mr. Braswell measures success in numbers of loans and renters turned into homeowners, Duane Gerstenberger, an Irvington resident, sees the group's effect in a more personal way.

When Mr. Gerstenberger first moved to the state to become executive director of the National Federation of the Blind, colleagues suggested he live in Irvington.

He was impressed by the mix of races, incomes and housing types, from Formstone rowhouses to stately Victorians.

But shortly after buying a large house with a big yard, his car was stolen, his home burglarized and a small fire set near his home.

He and his family considered moving. But in 1986, NHS moved in, choosing Irvington because of the accelerated white flight.

Stopping the decline

"I'd be in suburbia if it hadn't been for NHS," said Mr. Gerstenberger, who said he much prefers city living and decided to stay and fight along with NHS.

He now serves on the group's Irvington Neighborhood Planning Board.

"The most dramatic thing NHS has done is stopped the downward trend of the neighborhood," Mr. Gerstenberger said. "In all its 10 years, the property values have not only held steady, but they've kept pace with inflation."

The group's annual report shows the average purchase price in Irvington had risen from $34,159 in 1986 to $55,000 last year.

NHS also pushed for redevelopment along the Frederick Avenue business corridor, long one of the most visible signs of a neighborhood in decline, where the many vacant businesses attracted vagrants.

The group pressured the city to purchase and demolish some of the abandoned buildings, then joined with the state to build Irvington Place, 41 apartments for the elderly.

See the difference

In Coppin Heights, the NHS office is focusing on marketing the neighborhood, helping homeowners make repairs to homes and working with Coppin State University to improve facades along North Avenue.

The group hopes to maintain a relatively stable area as the many elderly and retired residents age and move on, said Denise Gordon, the office's neighborhood director.

Already, she said, "many of these rehab loans have done the porches and windows. You see a visual difference."

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