Modest houses, richer lives Nehemiah Homes mark 6th anniversary with plenty of smiles

'I have felt the freedom'

People who make as little as $9,000 are able to buy

May 17, 1998|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

Where there were once vacant lots, there are homes. Where there were dreams, there is reality. Where there was little hope, there is pride.

Residents of the Nehemiah Homes project in Sandtown-Winchester will be celebrating their sixth anniversary Saturday, and for the people who live there it has become an example of how subsidized affordable housing can succeed.

For Marlene Brown and her husband, Otha, the six years have shown her a new way of life.

"My sense is that this is a place that I can do with what I want," she said. "When you are living in an apartment or rental houses, there are things you can do and certain things you can't."

The Browns moved into their three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse in 1992, becoming one of the first residents of the Nehemiah project. And since moving in they have finished their basement and added awnings.

"I have felt the freedom to do and decorate like I want in this place, and that's made the biggest difference to me," she said. "It kind of makes you feel that it's more than just being proud, you feel a little more proud every time you step up on your steps, because this is your home."

"To become a homeowner in the American tradition it's not something that they could achieve for themselves and they have," said Chickie Grayson, president of Enterprise Homes Inc., which was part of the coalition that brought the Baltimore Nehemiah project together. "It opens up their world to other opportunities, and they are thinking about other opportunities and this is what it is all about."

Enterprise Nehemiah Development Inc. was a joint development venture between the Enterprise Foundation and Baltimore United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a nonprofit group of churches that helps restore inner-city neighborhoods.

Almost a decade ago, work began on rebuilding six square blocks in this West Baltimore neighborhood.

The project would see 227 townhouse units built in Sandtown-Winchester and another 73 in the Penn North community, with each unit costing approximately $62,000. The homes would be offered to buyers whose yearly income would not exceed $35,000.

"We have sold to people with incomes as low as $9,000," Grayson said. "The average income was about $18,000. If you can put together the right financing to enable people to become homeowners, then look at the progress [of the community]. It's just a good example of what can be done."

Mortgage money for the Nehemiah project came from three main sources: $11 million from the Community Development Administration of Maryland for first mortgages; $4.2 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for second mortgages; and $9 million from the city for third mortgages.

The typical first mortgage was $37,500 and came with a 30-year fixed interest rate that ranged from 4 to 7.75 percent, depending on a buyer's income. The HUD contribution added another $14,000 and the city made up the remainder.

Although there were three liens on the property, the buyer was only required to make payments on the first mortgage; therefore, monthly payments ranged between $250 and $350.

"A house recently sold in Sandtown a couple of months ago for $72,000, which is great because it means the program is really working," Grayson said. "People who could not normally afford a house are given the opportunity to become a homeowner and to be like other homeowners and build equity."

But some homeowners in Sandtown-Winchester have found themselves unable to tap into their equity when trying to refinance their homes.

In two recent instances, homeowners have attempted to refinance and take equity out of their homes to consolidate other debt. But conditions put forth by HUD in the original contract of sale state that if a homeowner refinances, and seeks to get cash out from the transaction, the second mortgage would become due.

"The basic principal is that if there is profit through the gain in equity, that the government should share in it," said Victor Lambert, a spokesman for HUD in Washington. "Our debt should be repaid."

Grayson's position is that Enterprise is there to help homeowners maintain their ability to stay in their homes. "Someone who gets themselves in trouble who needs to refinance so that they can pay off their debt I really worried about what will happen [to them] down the road," Grayson said.

"One of the issues was to make the housing affordable to people with lower income, when they go and refinance, they are going to increase their monthly mortgage payments. Now, is it going to be affordable for them?"

Grayson said the foundation has made provisions to help residents who find themselves with financial problems.

"We have set up an emergency loan fund for people who have a particular problem, an illness in the family, a loss of a job that would put them in danger of losing their house," she said. "We've used that loan fund to help tide people over until they get themselves back on their feet. On those loans that we've made, those people are still in those houses.

"We will also help people in getting them to the right places to help them with any financial problems that they have, like credit counciling."

But what Grayson refocused on was the stability of the community.

"It's not just the celebration of the community," she said, "it's the celebration of the homeowner."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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