Home economics

Incentives that help teachers and police officers afford a house may also boost neighborhoods

August 31, 2008|By Donna Owens | Donna Owens,Special to The Baltimore Sun

When DeWitt Doss moved to Maryland in 2006 to accept his first teaching position with Baltimore City public schools, the Niagara Falls, N.Y., native wasn't looking to buy a home. His chief concern was educating young people.

"I love helping the kids," says Doss, 26, who teaches physical education and health and coaches at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts in West Baltimore.

As his attachment to the students and the city grew, Doss - who'd been renting an apartment in Randallstown - began searching for a home of his own in Baltimore."I thought, 'If I work in the city, I might as well live in the city,'" he says. "I heard from a friend about a program called 'Teacher Next Door' and decided to look into it."

The Officer Next Door and Teacher Next Door programs were launched in 1997 and 2000, respectively, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2006, HUD combined them in what's now known as "Good Neighbor Next Door."

It's one of several home-buying initiatives offered by the city, state and federal government that provide incentives to help buyers across Maryland realize their dreams of homeownership.

In the case of "Good Neighbor Next Door," the sales program targets workers such as law enforcement officers, pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. The goal is to help them become homeowners, while revitalizing neighborhoods in need of economic and community development.

"It's similar in concept to some apartment developments that give discounts to police, because they want to encourage them to live and be seen in the community," says James Kelly, field office director for HUD's Baltimore office. "These homes are in neighborhoods that have some combination of vacancies or low owner occupancy rates. ... They essentially need a boost."

The program offers buyers financial incentives, namely, 50 percent off the list price of a home. In return, teachers and others must commit to living in the property for three years as their sole residence.

The idea appealed to Doss. He used the plan in tandem with the Baltimore City Employee Homeownership Program; it offers $3,000 for down payment and closing assistance to municipal employees who buy homes within city limits.

According to Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Housing, about 300 employees take advantage of the program annually; since its inception in 2005, close to 4,000 workers have benefited.

"It's been cheaper to buy a home than rent an apartment," says Doss, who closed in June on a three-bedroom house in the Belair-Edison neighborhood.

Doss paid just $25,000 for the property, or half its listed price. Combined with a $60,000 renovation loan so contractors could overhaul the kitchen, baths and heating system, he wound up with a mortgage that is less than what he paid to rent.

"It's good for any teacher," says Doss, a bachelor who'll move in once renovations are completed. "It's an incentive to live in the city. I can see myself staying long-term."

Jennifer Johnson has already spent close to three years in the Belair-Edison house she purchased in 2005 through the "Teacher Next Door" program.

Johnson, a language arts teacher at Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School in East Baltimore, wasn't looking to buy, either. At the time, she was 24 years old and considered herself too young to commit to a house. But her grandfather changed her mind.

"I was talking about buying a new car and he said, 'You already have a car. Young people waste money. You need an investment,' " she recalls him saying.

Accustomed to the competitive real estate market of her native Washington, Johnson soon learned that, by comparison, Baltimore offered good deals. Thanks to the HUD program, she paid $37,500 for a three-bedroom house originally listed at $75,000.

The place needed work, however.

"There were two big holes - one in the basement and the other in the living room ceiling," she says. Using a renovation loan, she "basically gutted the house" and rehabbed it from top to bottom.

Today, Johnson has a quick morning commute and an affordable mortgage. While noting that she would have bought a home eventually, she credits the program with providing financial incentives that made her act sooner.

"Homeownership became more of a reality for me," she says.

Jose Rivas of Taylor Properties in Fells Point was the real estate agent who gave Johnson and Doss advice on everything from the bidding and lottery system HUD uses to determine who will get homes, to the signed affidavits principals must sign certifying a teachers' employment status.

Over the past few years, Rivas, a former teacher himself, estimates he's helped about two dozen teachers, firefighters and police officers buy houses through various incentive programs.

Today, he and business partner, Fernando Pareda - also a former teacher - send out mailers to schools, host seminars and rely upon referrals and word of mouth to reach potential clients.

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