Fix up this house, and it's yours Low-income families can own homes through 'sweat equity' of homesteading program.


Ever since she was a little girl, Barbara Ellison has dreamed of someday owning her own home. Now, after years of waiting and more than 2,000 hours of work toward her goal, Ellison, 37, is seeing her dream become a reality.

In about a week, Ellison and her two sons will move from their apartment on Garrison Boulevard to the 2800 block of W. North Ave., where they will take up residence in a three-story, two-bedroom row house she has acquired through a homesteading program.

For about two years, Ellison hammered, plastered walls and cleaned up trash in an effort to make the rundown house her Sandtown home.

Although the floors still need tiles, the walls need to be painted, the basement needs to be finished, the yard needs to be cleaned out and the rooms need furnishings, Ellison says she looks forward to enjoying the comfort of her own home.

"It feels great to own my own house," Ellison says. "The first thing I'm going to do is put my bed up and go to sleep."

Ellison's new home is one of six row houses on the same block that are being renovated by the People's Homesteading Group, a local organization that turns abandoned houses into homes for low-income families.

PHG offers people an opportunity to earn ownership of their own home through a system called "sweat equity," in which prospective homeowners join in a community effort to renovate houses. PHG, which was created in 1983, has reconstructed houses for 32 families and is working on 20 more homes.

"It took a lot of sweat to get where we are now," says Mary Harvin, PHG president.

PHG supplies about $15,000 for the purchase of materials needed in the renovation process of each home. Some of the homes, which usually require about two or three years of work, are donated by the city.

After the house is finished, the new owner pays for it with low mortgage payments of $100 to $150 a month. That money is then funneled back into PHG to support and continue the program.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and city Housing Commissioner Robert Hearns attended Ellison's house-warming party last week. They praised PHG's efforts.

Representatives from Black and Decker and the Chase Bank of Maryland presented several house-warming gifts to match their donations of equipment and money to the ongoing renovation projects.

"Money is not enough in these tough times," says Kevin Byrnes, Chase president. "If you can give support by writing a check, you can also show it through time and effort."

Besides giving financial support to PHG, Chase Bank helps the group and homesteaders understand how mortgages work and what homeowners must do to qualify for them.

Byrnes said Chase Bank has contributed $10,00 worth of volunteer hours and cash to PHG since becoming involved with the program two years ago.Many of the bank's employees spend their weekends helping PHG to renovate houses and raise funds,he said.

Since 1989, in a campaign called "Build a Better America," Black and Decker, the Towson manufacturer of power tools, has contributed more than $100,000 in tools and money to help fund affordable housing in various programs throughout the nation.

"There are so many people in need of homes who can't afford them because housing costs are so high," says Ellen Foreman, the company's marketing services director.

Foreman gave Ellison power tools, including a drill and finishing sander, to help complete the renovation of her new home.

Having acquired her home, Ellison will now work to help others in the program get their homes ready to be lived in.

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