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Turning renters into homeowners


Thousands of tenants in the city could own their own homes but just don't know it. Tom Chalkley is convinced of this.

Mr. Chalkley, director of a Baltimore-based coalition of community and advocacy groups, knows equally well of the vast network of housing counselors that channels potential buyers through an often daunting buying process. The problem has been reaching buyers.

"We know they're out there," he said. "We suspect there are thousands of people in Baltimore who could become homeowners."

Last week, the jobs of counselors in the coalition -- Maryland Alliance for Responsible Investment (MARI) -- got a bit easier thanks to a financial boost from First Fidelity Bank.

The bank and MARI had formed a partnership in March to increase homeownership among low- to moderate-income families. The bank agreed to invest $40 million over three years in home purchase, home improvement and housing development loans.

As part of its pledge, the bank awarded $100,000 in grants Thursday to nine Baltimore-based groups, including Belair tTC Edison Housing Service, St. Pius V. Housing Committee, Southeast Development Inc., CHAI Neighborhood Housing, The Development Corp. of Northwest Baltimore, Maryland Low-Income Housing Coalition, St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Patterson Park Neighborhood Initiative and MARI.

The grants are the first of a total of $300,000 the bank agreed to give groups in the 27-member MARI coalition, to support counseling and guidance for homebuyers and small business development programs.

"Counselors work with a new layer of homeowners, folks who don't necessarily perceive themselves as homeowners or have aspirations to be homeowners," Mr. Chalkley said.

Counseling is especially crucial for low- to moderate-income buyers, who might not qualify for loans under traditional underwriting standards, Mr. Chalkley said. Counselors, based in residential neighborhoods, can help buyers determine how much house they can afford, clean up bad credit and develop realistic budgets. Such one-on-one assistance decreases the risk of buyers defaulting on loans and losing homes to foreclosure, he said.

Counselors can help pick the most suitable of the many private and public loan programs designed for low-income borrowers.

New Jersey-based First Fidelity, which purchased the parent of the Bank of Baltimore last year, is among lenders offering loans with below-market interest rates and flexible underwriting standards.

"It's our obligation to make sure we develop products that are going to make the community grow," said Jerome D. Greco, First Fidelity's senior vice president for government and public affairs. "We have branches in the city of Baltimore. If the community grows, First Fidelity grows and the shareholders' investments grow."

Supporting counseling services makes good business sense, said Mr. Greco, who handed out grants at a model house on West Belvedere Avenue reconstructed by The Development Corp. of Northwest Baltimore.

"We know that people who are counseled are less likely to wind up in asset recovery and foreclosure," he said.

Ernest Matthews, housing counselor for The Development Corp., which is buying and renovating dozens of homes for sale in the Pimlico and Park Heights areas, said his group's counseling services guide buyers from mortgage application to settlement.

MARI now has a homeownership hot line to link potential buyers with counseling services. For referrals, buyers can call 243-2222.

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