Homes for a better life

Baltimore's Enterprise Homes has grown into the fourth-largest builder of affordable houses in the Mid-Atlantic.

February 13, 2005|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

TYLETTE Gregory spent most of her childhood in the dilapidated and drug-infested projects of West Baltimore, crammed into a 10th-floor apartment with her mother and five siblings. As an adult with children of her own, living in apartments or with relatives, Gregory saw homeownership as her ticket to a better life. Affording a house, though, seemed out of reach.

These days, when she relaxes on her front porch in a suburban-style community where neighbors jog and walk dogs, Gregory, 35, can hardly believe she lives just blocks from the now-demolished Lexington Terrace where she grew up. And it's even harder to believe she and her husband own the brick-front, six-room townhouse in Heritage Crossing, where her kids have their own bedrooms.

"I lived in the projects the majority of my life, and I wanted to better myself. This is something I can call my home and pass on to my children," Gregory said.

Making homeowners of those who could not otherwise afford homes - and revitalizing struggling communities - has been part of the bottom line for two decades for Enterprise Homes Inc. of Baltimore, Heritage Crossing's builder.

Since its inception in 1985, the for-profit subsidiary of the Enterprise Foundation of Columbia has built more than 4,000 single-family houses, townhouses and apartments - for sale and for rent - from Pennsylvania to Virginia.

In 2004, Enterprise Homes had sales of $57 million and built 427 units. The company has grown into the Baltimore region's fourth largest residential developer and the largest developer of affordable housing in the Mid-Atlantic.

It targets the bulk of properties to buyers and renters who earn 31 percent to 80 percent of the median income in a given area. In the case of metropolitan Baltimore, the median income is $66,800 for a family of four.

As the builder marks its 20th year in business, the challenge of providing affordable housing is an increasingly daunting problem in the Baltimore area and nationally. The red-hot real estate market, coupled with a shortage of available land, is driving up house prices at record rates.

At the same time fewer and fewer housing subsidies are available. And in an ironic twist, rejuvenation of urban neighborhoods has unleashed a buying rush that can put those homes out of reach of lower-income residents.

"[Lack of a affordable housing is] a major national problem," said Eric S. Belsky, executive director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. "Large shares of households are spending half their income on housing."

Unlike other housing programs such as the high-profile Habitat for Humanity, Enterprise Homes was created to be self-sustaining as it produces revitalized housing. Any profits flow back to the Enterprise Foundation.

The late James W. Rouse, founder of the company that built Columbia, and his wife started the foundation in 1982 to help families break the cycle of poverty by providing decent, affordable housing.

"We're willing to do things other developers are not willing to do," said Chickie Grayson, Enterprise Homes' president and chief executive officer. "Our bottom line is different from their bottom line. We want to be profitable, but we want good-quality housing that people can afford."

Tedious process

It's an extraordinarily complicated and tedious process. Each project typically takes years of vying for public officials' approval, competing for limited - and dwindling - public financing, then patching together adequate public and private financing. It takes years of working hand in hand with other builders and community groups and persevering through the ups and downs of political and economic cycles.

The builder is one of just a handful nationally that's been successful building affordable homes for purchase, said John McIlwain, of the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization that studies land use and development issues.

Enterprise Homes, he said, has been "careful in where they buy land. They have a niche market. They don't try to do everything and they focus on what they know. They know what products will sell for what price and how to deliver it efficiently."

In Heritage Crossing, completed in 2003 on the site of the demolished George B. Murphy Homes public housing complex along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, townhouses with tidy front yards and white front porch columns sit in groups of twos or threes along winding streets. The homes are centered on a village green and historic, 1860 gazebo and in sight of the downtown skyline. Seventy-five of the houses are rentals; but most - 185 - were sold for between $68,000 and $130,000.

Grayson was encouraged to see at least 45 percent of the homebuyers at Heritage coming from outside the city of Baltimore, among them teachers, police officers and recent graduates of nearby professional schools.

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