RECYCLED HOUSING Non-profit group fixes up homes for low-income buyers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a recent Saturday morning, John McCormick zips around the 1900 block of Sherwood Avenue like a man possessed.

First stop: a house that a young man is painting with coats of primer. "Oh, man, you're cooking with gas, Dennis!" he says with satisfaction, surveying the broad amount of surface that's been covered. Next, Mr. McCormick trots over to a second house to look at flooring that's been installed that day. His third move takes him to his pickup truck, where he retrieves some tools for another project.

There's method to Mr. McCormick's frenzy. As a contractor for the Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity, a 10-year-old non-profit group that rehabilitates vacant houses for low-income residents, overseeing work on four crumbling houses on Sherwood Avenue in East Baltimore -- a job that doesn't leave time for loafing.

As government and community leaders call for more affordable housing in the wake of the Los Angeles riots, there's already a lot of activity in Baltimore, as Mr. McCormick's example shows.

The Baltimore Housing Roundtable, a coalition of about two dozen organizations, produces an average of 150 affordable housing units annually in Baltimore -- more than that of most cities, said Jesse Alfriend, a Roundtable member and development officer for the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

And while the recession has slowed some for-profit developers, it hasn't had the same effect on many of those who work to create housing for the poor. The Peoples' Homesteading Group, the Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, and the Sandtown Habitat For Humanity have kept up a normal pace. Some are producing more than ever.

"The for-profit world is affected by demand and markets, but we don't operate so much on the availability of markets," said Michael Mazepink, director of the Peoples'Homesteading Group, which has rehabilitated 35 houses in Baltimore in the past 10 years. "And our volunteers can continue working even if we have relatively little money."

The group expects to fix up 18 houses this year -- about three times as many as last year, he said.

There are about 7,000 vacant houses in Baltimore, said Michael Field of the Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity. Other groups are just beginning to venture into development and rehabilitation. In its first step of this kind, The East Baltimore Midway/Barclay Community Development Corp., which represents citizens of the area that lies between 25th Street and North Avenue in East Baltimore, plans to renovate five houses this year.

"Since we're a community organization that's governed by residents, we feel that we'll have the best interests of the total community in mind," said Sylvia Fulwood, group director. She said the houses would be sold to low- and moderate-income families in an effort to revitalize and stabilize the community.

Likewise, the Baltimore Jobs In Energy Project, a 10-year-old non-profit organization that works to create affordable housing largely by developing training programs in energy conservation, is intensifying efforts to renovate and maintain housing, said director Dennis Livingston. Rather than just working on a kitchen or a bathroom, it may begin to rehabilitate whole units, or multifamily units, he said.

And the non-profit Enterprise Foundation, headed by developer James W. Rouse, recently began working with several local groups and the city to build 227 town houses for low-income families in Sandtown in West Baltimore.

"As we look around the country, we see many foundations and corporations that are . . . understanding the risk of having a growing gap between the rich and the poor," said Paul Brophy, vice chair at the Columbia-based foundation. "This is one way of closing that gap."

Not all of these organizations are doing well. The Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore Inc. (NHS), a group which provides low-cost loans to homeowners who need to make repairs, and assistance to first-time homebuyers, may have to cut its $650,000 budget by about $37,000 this year if state funds aren't forthcoming. The group, which is active in Irvington and Coppin Heights, has had to turn down requests for its services from other neighborhoods, according to Robin Chandlee, deputy director.

"We're pretty much at bare bones right now," said Ms. Chandlee, who worries that the federal government may cut block grant funds, which account for about 30 percent of NHS' budget.

And although Peoples' Homesteading Group hasn't had to reduce the number of homes it rehabilitates, it has projected a budget shortfall of $38,000 this year because of cuts in donations and delays in receiving state grants, Mr. Mazepink said.

Groups which rely solely on donations from individuals and churches, and those which function on the concept of "sweat equity" have been faring better. The Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity, for example, is in the black, said Michael Field, president of the board.

"In economies such as these, it's a great advantage not to have to rely on government moneys," he said. Mr. Field. "At the worst, they're canceled, or at the best, they're delayed, which is just as bad."

With a volunteer board of nine and an annual budget of about $130,000, the church-affiliated Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity is one of the smaller groups in the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, which consists of both neighborhood groups and those that operate on a citywide basis. So far, most of Chesapeake's work has taken place in the Midway/Barclay community in East Baltimore, where it's rehabilitated four houses so far, and plans to complete another four to six this year.

"We don't ever envision building more than 10 houses per year," Mr. Field said, noting that the group wants to remain in touch with most of its homeowners, and that a large size would forbid that kind of contact. "The bureaucracy we'd have to create to handle 300 homeowners would just be unwieldy."

Sweat equity, in which future homeowners help to renovate houses to earn the right to buy homes from a group, plays an important part in the Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity's mode of operating, as well as in that of the Sandtown Habitat For Humanity and the Peoples' Homesteading Group. Those who purchase houses from Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity are required to contribute about 300 hours toward renovating houses, according to Mr. Field. At the Peoples' Homesteading Group, the minimum is 480 hours.

"We've gone through discussions of whether or not we should have volunteers do the work, instead," Mr. Mazepink said. "But people need to take control of their own situations, and [doing the work themselves] allows them to do that."

Within the past few months, Dennis Edwards has spent four Saturdays helping to repair Sherwood Avenue houses for Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity. "I'd like to live in one of these houses, and that's why I'm dedicating my time," said the 34-year-old father of four.

Once a future homeowner puts in the necessary hours of sweat equity, he receives an interest-free mortgage. A $25,000 12- to 15-year mortgage, which translates into payments of $250 per month, is typical, Mr. Field said. He noted that prospective homeowners must live in substandard housing to qualify.

The system doesn't always work smoothly. When a house is donated to a group by an individual, untangling the paperwork to make it usable can be daunting.

Setbacks result from working in an area that's a magnet for junkies and criminals. Volunteers arrived at a Sherwood Avenue house recently to find the walls they'd painstakingly erected the day before stolen. "Anything that's of value is taken," said Mr. McCormick, site supervisor.

But Chesapeake's efforts already have changed the block. Families inhabit four formerly vacant houses. "We've gotten a bunch of people on the block that look after each other," Mr. McCormick said.

Some predict that groups such as Chesapeake Habitat For Humanity and Peoples' Homesteading Group will become even busier. "Private individuals and the private sector are going to have to lead the way," Mr. Field said. "The government's just not going to do it anymore."

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