Building on Faith

`Guardian angels' of many religious groups are renovating marginal properties for people of modest means in Baltimore

September 18, 2005|By Susan Middaugh | Susan Middaugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Dorothy Dobbyn was sweating on a recent humid morning as she took a break from painting a two-bedroom rowhouse on Chesterfield Avenue in Belair-Hudson.

A group of volunteers from her church, St. Francis of Assisi on Harford Road, is fixing up the property to rent to a single working mother on a limited income and her two sons. The goal is for the family to purchase the house -- their first -- two years from now at today's market rate.

"We wanted to put our faith into action," said Dobbyn, who chairs the Social Justice Task Force at her Roman Catholic church. "We liked the idea of working locally" and helping a family in need "move forward with the American dream."

Dobbyn's is one of several faith-based groups that have taken their belief in transformation into Baltimore's neighborhoods.

Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups are working quietly and separately in different areas of the city. But their mission is fundamentally the same: creating affordable housing, often one unit at a time, by rehabbing vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties.

With city home prices rising at double-digit rates -- the average Baltimore house cost $172,170 in August -- more and more people are being squeezed out of the housing market.

That makes the work these faith-based groups are doing that much more essential, said John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. But the housing boom also has made their job harder as once cheap marginal properties begin to command higher prices.

"I understand the personal impact that a very aggressive real estate market has on work-force housing. There's so much need," he said.

"Nonprofits are geared to low- and moderate-income buyers," said Diane Cippolone, director of research and policy at the Community Law Center in Baltimore and director of the Project to End Predatory Real Estate Practices. "It's a good thing these developers are returning vacant properties to the market. For-profit developers won't do it."

On a national level, the Bush administration has made it easier for faith-based groups to have access to federal monies for community renewal and community development, particularly in African-American and immigrant communities, said Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

But groups nevertheless are facing obstacles. The group at St. Francis raised $20,000 in pledges from parishioners for renovation costs and received $30,000 in seed money from an anonymous donor to purchase a house.

Finding one they could afford was a formidable task, Dobbyn said. That's understandable, given the city's hot real estate market, said Jody Landers, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. It takes institutional courage for faith-based groups to achieve their goals, he said.

For Allan Tibbels, co-executive director of Sandtown's Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit developer that has rehabbed 225 vacant and abandoned houses since 1989, the challenge is to keep up the momentum. Sandtown Habitat is an affiliate of New Song Community Church.

"We do 25 houses a year," he said, each one costing approximately $50,000 to renovate. Corporate sponsors contribute 50 percent of that.

Tibbels said he's been fortunate to have long-term sponsors, such as Provident Bank, Black & Decker and T. Rowe Price, and partners like the Enterprise Foundation as a source of grants and loans. Architectural and legal work is pro bono. Still, there is a constant need for resources, he said.

The social action group at St. Francis can attest to the need for perseverance.

"Our initial challenge was that we had no idea what we were doing, only the will to do it," said Peggy Drew, one of the leaders at St. Francis.

For six months, volunteers from the church attended auctions, only to be outbid again and again. Finally, in the spring of this year, a local real estate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. found a foreclosed property the group was able to afford.

By comparison, property acquisition is not an issue for Sandtown's Habitat. Since 2001, the nonprofit developer has had a land-use agreement with the city of Baltimore that gives it access, free of charge, to 134 vacant and abandoned houses in its 15-square-block focus area of Sandtown-Winchester, Tibbels said.

However, bureaucratic red tape was a problem for the Social Action Committee at Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill.

The committee established Lakeside Neighbors, a limited liability company, to purchase two vacant and abandoned properties in their neighborhood from the city's Housing and Community Development Department. The acquisition process took two years, said Beth Am member Jerry Doctrow, president of Lakeside Neighbors.

"It was incredibly frustrating and cumbersome. I hope that in the future, the city will find a way to work more effectively with not-for-profit, faith-based groups," he said.

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