An answer to prayers Ownership: An idea hatched by three Baltimore clergymen enables low-income families to buy homes, while fighting the community blight fed by vacant houses.


You can talk about pride of ownership, the benefits of building equity in your home, the tax advantages of the mortgage-interest deduction, etc., etc.

For Gracie Thompson, it was the smell of real pine needles at Christmastime.

When she and her daughter lived in apartments, they weren't allowed to have a real tree to trim, to surround with gifts.

So after she took title to her own home in Washington Village/Pigtown, Thompson knew what it meant -- the freedom to cut down a tree, drag it indoors and prop it up, with no landlord to say otherwise.

"This is our house, and we can have any kind of Christmas tree we want," she said.

But Gracie Thompson, an employee at the dental school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, wouldn't have her tree or her keys to her American dream without an organization that grew out of discussions among three clergymen a decade ago.

They were struggling to come up with a way to stem the seemingly inexorable decline of the neighborhoods around their churches.

The result was Tri-Churches Housing Inc.

A nonprofit church and community partnership, Tri-Churches is committed to providing affordable housing, particularly in the Washington Village/Pigtown neighborhood, for very low- and moderate-income families.

It is also committed to erasing the blight that threatens community stability.

Thompson, who moved to the South Baltimore community in 1991, is among 25 first-time home owners in the area, who -- thanks to Tri-Churches -- now live in completely renovated houses that boast modern layouts, skylights, central air conditioning, new appliances, security systems and -- unlike many city houses -- adequate storage room.

Before the renovations, the homes had been vacant or abandoned properties, gnawing away at the neighborhood one boarded-up front door at a time.

"I didn't think I could ever own my own home," said Thompson, now a member of the organization's advisory board.

"At the time I bought this house, I wasn't making very much money, plus I am a single mother.

"But Tri-Churches gave me the confidence I needed to go ahead.

"My mortgage payments are actually lower than the rents I used to pay, and my self-esteem is a lot higher," she added.

Located on the second floor of St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church on Hamburg Street, Tri-Churches marked its 10th anniversary during a recent dinner at the church's Upper Hall.

A crowd of 200 people -- builders, real estate agents, mortgage lenders, homeowners -- celebrated the organization's role in the revitalization of Washington Village/Pigtown.

The event highlighted the role that nongovernmental, community-based development organizations like Tri-Churches and St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center have played in the battle against urban decay.

David Elam, director of Fannie Mae's Baltimore Partnership Office, told the gathering "it is very clear" that organizations like Tri-Churches and St. Ambrose had established "major and central role in the redevelopment of Baltimore."

Tri-Churches has done its part by acquiring vacant and abandoned homes, renovating them and finding buyers.

"We regularly walk around the area to identify houses or groups of houses that are blights within their blocks," said Nonet Thomas, executive director of Tri-Churches.

"It is a slow process."

But doing rehabs is only the first part of that process, said Kelley Collings, director of the organization's home-ownership counseling programs.

"Providing housing is more than just renovating a house. It's addressing the needs of the people who will live in that house."

So Tri-Churches has expanded its services to include a comprehensive homeownership counseling program that prepares prospective buyers for the home buying process, and continues to educate them about owner ship responsibilities after the property is settled.

Included is counseling about credit and debt management.

To date, more than 500 prospective homebuyers have taken advantage of the counseling programs, which are open to everyone.

"We help first-time homebuyers who aren't interested in a house in Washington Village/Pigtown find suitable houses elsewhere in the city," Collings said.

Tri-Churches also helps prospective homeowners get mortgages.

According to Patricia Payne, secretary of Maryland's Department of Housing and Community Development, it is precisely the counseling and other back-up programs that have made nonprofit community developers like Tri-Churches and St. Ambrose on the east side attractive candidates for state homeownership funding programs.

"In the past, funding [for housing] was split 70 percent toward for-profit and 30 percent toward nonprofit," Payne said.

"Now those rates have been totally reversed with 70 percent of state moneys going toward housing developed by nonprofits because of the built-in counseling services nonprofit developers provide."

According to Payne, the state set aside homeownership money last year for six of Tri-Churches' home-renovation projects, totaling $722,989 in mortgages for houses that it has rehabilitated and made available to prospective home buyers.

In addition to its counseling programs, Tri-Churches has initiated a program with large employers such as Mercy and Bon Secours hospitals to develop partnerships that provide housing education and resources to their staff.

Over the decade, Tri-Churches realized that to maintain community stability, elderly or disabled homeowners needed an extra hand in keeping their houses in good repair.

To meet this need, Tri-Churches collaborated with Light Street Housing, another South Baltimore nonprofit, to provide minor home repairs to more than 120 qualified elderly and disabled homeowners in Washington Village/Pigtown.

"The partnership has worked out nicely since we focus on rental properties," said Greg Cantori of Light Street Housing.

According to Cantori, a side effect of the collaboration has been the ability of several formerly homeless men involved in Light Street's rental housing program to graduate into Tri-Churches' homeownership program.

"We're just starting to see that now, and it is especially gratifying," he said.

Tri-Churches has also entered joint partnerships with outside developers to create an additional 80 units of affordable housing in the neighborhood.

It also worked with Ryland Homes and the Enterprise Foundation to market 19 new townhouses built in the area.

The organization also worked with a for-profit developer in the marketing and leasing of 32 rental units for low-income families in a renovated school building that had been vacant for 20 years.

A decade ago, the organization was just parlor talk among three neighborhood pastors representing St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, Dorguth Memorial United Methodist Church and St. Paul the Apostle Episcopal Church.

"We were sitting around my living room one night and got to talking about ways to improve the neighborhood," said the Rev. Jim Bussard, a founding father who was then pastor of Dorguth Memorial.

"There were so many crumbling abandoned houses. The houses along the front side of St. Jerome's were total eyesores for 20 years.

"We hit upon this idea and James Dowdy, then pastor of St. Jerome's, got us incorporated as a 501(c)(3) through the Catholic church," he said.

"We wanted to do something that would indicate the presence of God in the neighborhood. Something that would be self-sufficient and not affiliated with any political philosophy."

Later, the pastor from Scott Street Baptist Church joined the effort, which then "energized existing homeowners to fix up their homes."

The effort started when the three churches began buying houses in the neighborhood, renovating them, then reselling them at affordable prices to first-time homebuyers.

In the first two years of operations, the pastors -- with the support of their congregations -- bought and sold eight houses.

For a while, the program was run by the pastors with no lay people involved, Bussard said.

"We had no money, but none of us ever considered that it would fail or doubted that it would succeed," Bussard said.

"We just operated on faith and believed that God's checkbook would prevail."

Pub Date: 5/12/96

Decade's work

Since its founding, Tri-Churches Housing has done the following:

* Renovated 25 dwellings of affordable housing.

* Created partnerships with developers to provide an additional 80 units.

* Provided minor repairs for more than 120 elderly and disabled homeowners.

* Provided counseling for more than 500 prospective homebuyers.

* Worked with institutions and corporations on employer-assisted housing.

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