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Grow Baltimore's population by making homeownership possible

Interior PolicyWells FargoReal Estate BuyersHousing and Urban Planning2010 CensusStephanie Rawlings-Blake

Earlier this year, Baltimore's challenge to the 2010 Census established that the city had 621,074 residents on April 1, 2010. This revised number will now be used by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as the baseline for counting toward her goal of growing the city's population by 10,000 families (22,000 people) in a decade. We're already on the way with 621,342 people as of March, and Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore, the nonprofit organization that I lead, has more good news on that front.

We counsel about 1,200 homeowners and potential homeowners each year and facilitate loans primarily for down-payment assistance and owner-occupied rehabilitation of existing houses. One of our loan programs, CityLIFT, was launched in January and has already reached its maximum capacity of 300 loan commitments for a total of $4.5 million. The program — a partnership with Wells Fargo Bank and NeighborWorks America — provides eligible home buyers with $15,000 of down-payment assistance on qualified in-town properties in the form of five-year forgivable loans.

Of the 300 commitments made, more than 100 borrowers are moving to the city from somewhere else, more than 90 percent are first-time homeowners, and 75 percent are 35 or younger. The popularity of the program demonstrates that many people would like to live in Baltimore if they could afford it, and expanding programs like CityLIFT could play a major role in achieving the mayor's goal for population growth.

Baltimore has many attractive advantages as a place to live, work and raise a family, but it must be affordable. The city offers incentives for homeownership: for conversion of vacant homes to occupancy, for city employees, for those who wish to live near their work and for those earning less than 80 percent of the median area income. The state offers another $5,000 in incentives as well. The addition of CityLIFT would seem to make the total mix affordable and attractive, especially to those living outside Baltimore, particularly given that many houses in the city sell for between $100,000 and $150,000.

The mayor's goal is not simply an admirable desire for city growth. Population growth typically leads to an expansion of homeownership, and homeownership is crucial to Baltimore's economic development. Homeowners, unlike renters, typically invest in improving their property (and, therefore, the community).

That's why our organization focuses on neighborhood improvement through homeownership. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to share in the American Dream of homeownership; that homeownership creates wealth, strengthens families, and revitalizes neighborhoods; and that informed home buyers are equipped to make better decisions.

I'm pleased to be in the forefront of a new movement called Home Matters (www.HomeMattersAmerica.com), a unique national initiative that aims to unite America around the essential role that home plays as the bedrock for thriving lives, healthy communities and a stronger nation. The movement was launched in March in Washington, D.C., spearheaded by the National NeighborWorks Association, of which our organization is a member, with crucial support from Citi Community Development and Wells Fargo.

Joining in the launch of Home Matters were U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan and a bipartisan group of members of Congress, who represented a broad political spectrum. Their presence, even in a polarized capital, underscored that "Home Matters" no matter what your political beliefs.

Certainly, Home Matters to Baltimore — and the power of home is crucial to achieving the mayor's goal for Baltimore's growth. Making Baltimore affordable is the key, and CityLIFT is pointing us in the right direction.

Dan Ellis is executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. His email is dellis@nhsbaltimore.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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