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HOMEWARD BOUND Center teaches 1st time buyers how to get a house


While high-profile builders and developers were making a splash by building new homes that were affordable for low-income buyers only because they came packaged with government-backed, low-interest mortgages, Charles Jeffries was taking an different road to help people buy houses.

He reasoned that it was better to put people into houses already on the market, rehabilitate vacant houses to revitalize neighborhoods, teach people how to manage their earnings and credit and then show them how to buy a house.

To do that, Mr. Jeffries started a non-profit organization -- The Center for Affordable Housing -- at 512 Cathedral St. The center raises all its operating funds from private sources and does not accept public money. Most of the counseling services are provided free, but there are nominal fees for some of the credit services.

In the first two years of operation, Mr. Jeffries helped 160 people buy houses.

Working to put people into their first homes isn't the usual path for a Wharton School of Business graduate. So why didn't Charles Jeffries follow his classmates into a corporate world of high finance? Because when he was a student in Philadelphia, he saw a woman cry.

The son of a Chicago developer, Mr. Jeffries didn't expect to be affected so deeply when a college professor drafted some students to rehab a house in southwest Philadelphia. And he wasn't prepared for his reaction when the single mother who bought the house cried when she walked into the first home she ever owned.

That's when he realized that the house wasn't just a home for the woman and her children, it was her first step to a new life.

After a stint at a mortgage firm, he went looking for a city in which to hang his shingle, and he decided on Baltimore because it had all the classic problems of urban America: homelessness, crime and a marginal education system.

All Mr. Jeffries wants to do is make his clients believe that they can own a home if they are willing to put some of their own effort into the process, rather than expecting someone to do the legwork for them.

"As you go through the process [of buying a house], there is a sense of disbelief. Even closer to the sale: more disbelief. Closer to the mortgage process: even more disbelief. Most of our client base doesn't believe," Mr. Jeffries said.

"We teach them the skills about how to use and manage their credit," he said. The center also teaches negotiation skills, how to be persistent and reach decision-makers in companies and demystifies the mortgage process by telling clients what bankers look for in an application.

"They don't understand the rationale of the person giving the loan. If you understand the rules, you know how to play the game," he said.

Often the first step is getting his clients into the game. Many don't have bank accounts because they don't want to pay monthly fees and they don't trust banks, he said.

Dealing with misconceptions is the first hurdle potential homeowners face during the first of a series of workshops that will teach them the skills to put them in their first home.

They discuss dealing with a bankruptcy on their credit record, bargaining with creditors to take the delinquent payment off the credit record in exchange for payment, the advantages of paying the party owed rather than collection agencies, and the advantages of having a nest egg in the bank.

"If you can show that the debt is paid off, we can get you into a house," Mr. Jeffries said.

Other workshops cover shopping for a loan and loan programs, closing on a home and home inspections.

Counselors will help shoppers identify neighborhoods with houses they can afford, search public records for the last purchase price of a house, find a mortgage, and then help them through each stage of the purchase.

Mary Brusio and Lenora Zimmerli recently attended their first session at The Center for Affordable Housing for some house hunting guidance.

Ms. Brusio and her two children live with her parents in West Baltimore. When she was married, her paycheck went toward car payments, and her husband took care of the rest of the finances. Now, she says she wants to learn how to manage all the bills.

Ms. Zimmerli, who lives in an Ellicott City apartment, is facing a $50 increase that will raise her rent to $600 a month. "For that money I could get a house," she said.

But just getting his clients into houses isn't enough for Charles Jeffries. "Post-purchase counseling gets them from marginal to mainstream," he said.

More information

Center for Affordable Housing 512 Cathedral St. Third Floor Baltimore, Md. 21201 (410-727-3562)

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