Homes offer chance to own

City buying 2 units to sell through a program that helps low-income buyers

Goal is more homeownership

Union Street area focus of revitalization

Westminster

September 17, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Westminster officials have voted to buy two houses as a part of a homeownership program for low-income families and to revitalize one of the city's more troubled neighborhoods.

The Common Council unanimously approved this week the use of nearly $127,000 to buy two one-bedroom, one-bathroom townhouses that participantsin the city's homeownership program can purchase. The sales are expected to close within a month.

The city's housing director hopes the purchases will bring long-term stability to a neighborhood where its families can usually afford only rentals.

"We have two goals here: to make more affordable housing available for homeownership, and focusing on helping the neighborhood as a whole in order to change the balance to more homeownership," said Karen Blanford, head of the city's Office of Housing and Community Development.

"Homeownership brings a lot more long-term stability," she said. "Rental property is very important, but there's an awful lot of renters who would really like to become homeowners and gain equity and wealth."

She estimated that 41 percent of the properties in the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood are rentals and that 41 percent are owner-occupied. The remaining are commerical. The goal, she said, is 60 percent homeownership.

The buyers of the two townhouses will have to sign contracts ensuring that they will live in the homes and not rent them out.

The homes, which sit under one roof as a duplex, are on Union Street, in the lower Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood. Two summers ago, the city created a committee of residents, government officials and law enforcement agencies to discuss options for countering the crime, code violations and sinking property values there.

One of the townhouses has been rehabilitated by its former owner, the Frederick-based Interfaith Housing Alliance, a nonprofit organization that helps provide housing for low-income families and the elderly. The adjoining house will be rehabbed by the city.

Blanford is hoping for donations of supplies and labor.

"It needs a lot of work," she said.

The renovated half of the duplex includes new bathroom and kitchen fixtures, new carpeting, a spacious walk-in closet in the bedroom and new windows.

The house next door has wear and tear: moldy odors, a bathroom door that is falling apart, lead paint chipping off the walls, worn, dark brown, shag carpeting and exposed pipes and wires.

The city will not sell the homes until both are renovated, Blanford said. The cost of the remaining renovations is estimated at $40,000 to $50,000.

The money to buy the houses comes from the Revolving Assistance Loan Fund, a program through which the city distributes aid to low-income developments.

The fund began as a federal block grant that gave loans to city property owners, primarily on Main Street, to rehabilitate their buildings and add housing to those buildings. Their repayments funded other projects in the city, Blanford said.

In the past, the money has helped rehabilitate historic buildings, including the Green Street Center and the Carroll Arts Center.

James Upchurch, president of the Interfaith Housing Alliance said his organization has rehabilitated about a dozen Union Street homes it had inherited from another nonprofit group on that street. It is selling the units to first-time homebuyers.

"We've seen a turnaround on Union Street through improved management and simultaneously introducing more home ownership," Upchurch said.

Interfaith owns 20 apartments on the street that are rented to moderate-income families.

"But as we were getting down to the last units, we had started working on reorganizing, and the city had a similar initiative. ... We decided from a strategic standpoint that we had accomplished our primary objective of the revitalization of Union Street."

The Union Street duplex has been vacant for a few years, said Upchurch, but has been used in a past as a rental unit.

The city has offered affordable second mortgages to qualifying residents through a previous partnership with Interfaith, but Blanford said the biggest problem then was finding available homes for affordable rates.

She said the money used to buy the duplex will be repaid to the fund. Most of that money will be generate through the sale of the homes.

Although the vote was unanimous, some council members expressed concern about such projects.

"In the long term, it may be better if a no-profit organization handles these projects. It is not without risk to the city," said council President Damian L. Halstad.

Council members agreed that it would be in the city's best interest to get as many donations as possible to renovate the homes and that furthering homeownership in the city is worthwhile.

"Personally, I think the risk is worth taking," said council member Thomas Ferguson. "The outcome is more likely to be positive than negative."

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