Baltimore is a city full of potential to Nancy Welsh, the founder of the rapidly expanding North Carolina nonprofit Builders of Hope Inc.
The nonprofit recently announced plans to rehabilitate 500 vacant homes near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Baltimore was a draw in part because the city already has rehab programs aimed at reducing blight, said Welsh.
And several of her employees — the nonprofit has grown from 10 to 50 workers — are from Charm City. They convinced her that Baltimore, with its 16,000 vacant homes and residents in need, should be one of the next beneficiaries of the nonprofit's work.
Since Welsh, 45, started the organization in 2006 with her own inheritance, it has saved more than 500 homes in several cities that were slated for demolition, many in the nonprofit's home state of North Carolina. Part of Builders of Hope Inc.'s goal is to combat the "knee-jerk" reflex on the part of some city governments to tear vacant homes down, she said.
"The quickest way to get [people] back into housing is to use existing inventory," Welsh said. "Baltimore obviously has a huge need."
Last summer, Welsh and her employees started having meetings with Baltimore's leaders and toured neighborhoods. They're coming back this week for more meetings, with the city and Hopkins, and properties for rehabilitation should be selected by the end of June, she said.
Several municipal leaders and affordable-housing advocates credit their partnerships with Builders of Hope with revitalizing neighborhoods in their areas. City leaders who have worked with Builders of Hope say the group excels at navigating municipal programs and finding financial assistance for its rehabs.
But the nonprofit has also run into legal and financing trouble on a project in New Orleans. And while the nonprofit has secured the ability to tap a $100 million investment fund from an anonymous donor, some say the group could experience growing pains as it expands.
In Raleigh, N.C., where Builders of Hope is headquartered, the nonprofit has partnered with the city to develop a community called State Street Village in multiple phases, said Michele Grant, the city's director of community development.
Run-down homes are moved onto city-owned property and refurbished on their new foundations under strict city oversight. The city provides water and sewer updates and mortgages in some cases, she said.
"We worked very closely with them because they were a new partner for us," said Grant.
The first phase included 25 houses. "In phase one, we couldn't get rid of lots fast enough," Grant said. Sales of the homes in the second phase have been slower, though, in part because potential buyers are having trouble getting mortgages from private lenders, she said.
Grant credited Builders of Hope with helping to ensure the project's success and being responsive to city leaders, she said. Her only hesitation about working with the nonprofit again, she said, would stem from concern that it may be spread too thin and might not have the capacity to maintain a steady speed of development.
Welsh pointed out that Builders of Hope did not expand at all during 2011, and planned to expand this year into just two or three cities. Moreover, the organization's new developments, in Baltimore and Atlanta, would be funded privately, eliminating the time-consuming process of acquiring public money, she said.
"We're not growing fast at all," she said.
A Builders of Hope project in New Orleans has been criticized because trouble getting financing delayed the removal of historic homes from the site of a planned hospital. Enterprise Community Loan Fund, a nonprofit affordable housing group based in Columbia, provided Builders of Hope with a $1 million line of credit to finish the New Orleans project.
One contractor on that project has sued the nonprofit, saying Builders of Hope has failed to make payments. Welsh's group, in return, has sued the contractor, alleging that the work agreed upon was not completed.In Charlotte, N.C., the nonprofit has renovated houses in the city's Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
"We've had really good and positive relations" with Builders of Hope, said Pamela Wideman, the assistant director of business and neighborhood services for Charlotte.
In addition to being savvy about financing their projects, she said, "they're really inclusive with the residents."
Builders of Hope established an office in Charlotte for the project. Checking out a potential, donated office space is on the to-do list for next week's trip to Baltimore, Welsh said.
There's no doubt that Welsh — who Allison Hapgood, a spokeswoman for the Raleigh Housing Authority, described as "driven" and "focused" — is serious. She even has a patent pending on her nonprofit's process for building recycled, green communities.
Welsh, a former advertising executive and mother of four, built the nonprofit from scratch.