Building Affordability

Rouse's Enterprise boosts effort

October 28, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN REPORTER

When Columbia founder James W. Rouse decided to spend his retirement building a nonprofit, his goal was outrageously ambitious: eliminate poverty through affordable housing and community development - in a single generation.

A generation later, the gap between affordable-housing need and availability has only worsened. Home prices have skyrocketed. Manufacturing jobs that paid high school graduates good salaries are disappearing. Federal budget commitments for "housing assistance" have dwindled. More than 700,000 Americans are homeless on any given night.

But Enterprise Community Partners is the major national player that the late Rouse wanted it to be, despite falling short of his overarching aim. Now a quarter-century old, it has funneled $8 billion into the work - nearly half of that in the past five years - and keeps redoubling its efforts to make headway.

The Columbia-based group, which says it has built and helped others build 225,000 affordable homes across the country, is recruiting private investors to the cause. It's lobbying for new sources of government financing. It's working with partners to redevelop a section of hurricane-damaged New Orleans. And it has expanded its mission to assist not only low-income workers and retirees but also middle-income people such as teachers who have found themselves priced out.

Enterprise is wooing banks and others to invest $100 million in a new fund for such "work force" housing, to be built as early as next year, largely in Maryland.

"We want to aggregate capital like never done before - we want to put together bigger and bigger pools of money," said Doris W. Koo, Enterprise's president and chief executive.

Added Bart Harvey, the nonprofit's chairman: "It's got to have some scale, because the forces that are changing things in this country are massive."

Challenges continue to mount. Foreclosures are rising, and a new congressional report predicts that hundreds of thousands who got subprime mortgages could lose their homes in the next two years. Enterprise sees trouble brewing in cities where it has invested years of attention, such as Cleveland and Baltimore, and is looking for ways to keep neighborhoods from falling apart.

Silver lining

But the sharp housing slowdown that's contributing to the foreclosure rate has a silver lining. Across the country, builders who once outcompeted affordable-housing advocates for land are now approaching them in hopes of unloading it.

"The public homebuilders don't want to have any more land on their books," said Chickie Grayson, head of Enterprise Homes, Enterprise's development arm. "I've had a fair number of people coming to us, interestingly enough, asking that we be the master developer on a site, ... which is a great opportunity."

James Rouse's development firm, the Rouse Co., made a national name for itself with sweeping urban redevelopment - such as the transformation of Baltimore's industrial harbor into a tourist destination with Harborplace. After retiring in 1979, he brought an entrepreneur's eye to affordable housing. Though Enterprise is nonprofit, it oversees for-profit financing and development subsidiaries that send about $6 million a year back to the charitable operations.

Early on, Rouse intended to drum up funds by having Enterprise develop Harborplace-like projects in smaller cities such as Norfolk, Va. But they didn't end up as the successful moneymakers he'd hoped for. His dreams of a government incentive, on the other hand, came to better fruition. Enterprise lobbied for, and in 1986 helped get passed, the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit, responsible for the building or rehabilitating of hundreds of thousands of affordable rental units.

Getting tax credits

Developers compete for the tax credits and then sell them to banks and other investors, using the money to subsidize their developments. Enterprise acts as a go-between, brokering close to $800 million in such deals last year. It keeps an eye on projects after they're built.

The organization is in some ways a very different animal than the 31-year-old Habitat for Humanity International, made synonymous with affordable housing by former President Jimmy Carter's involvement.

Habitat is grass roots, with chapters across the world coordinating homebuilding at a local level. The 480-employee Enterprise, which predominantly finances other builders, is top down and particularly interested in urban poverty issues, said Barbara Miller, executive director of the National Affordable Housing Network in Butte, Mont.

"Enterprise ... and Habitat both have just really tried to get a lot of units out there, and they both have produced a remarkably similar number," she said.

Nakita Lewis, 32, a juvenile probation officer who bought one of the new homes Enterprise co-developed in the Sandtown- Winchester neighborhood, believes decent affordable housing is the way to reduce crime in the city.

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