It turned out to be the story of the little "trolley" that could.
When the Fannie Mae Foundation, Baltimore's Housing Authority and the Live Baltimore Marketing Center organized a series of housing fairs almost a year ago, there may have been uncertainty whether the partnership was on the right track in promoting homeownership in many of the city's unsung neighborhoods.
But by dangling a $3,000 incentive in front of potential buyers and orchestrating imaginative and educational neighborhood trolley tours, the program, which will have its concluding run Saturday, has become an apparent success.
"Since we had never done it before, we had no idea what to expect, although we had certain goals and ideas," said Tracy Gosson, director of the marketing center.
"It's really worked out exactly the way we wanted it to in bringing all the right people to the table and bringing incentive money and spreading it out throughout the regions, spreading it out through [varying] incomes, house prices, neighborhoods. It's definitely been very good."
On Saturday, the last of the five Buying into Baltimore tours will rumble through central downtown area neighborhoods -- Ridgely's Delight, Federal Hill, Otterbein, Seton Hill, Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill, Charles Village and Waverly -- as part of the Fannie Mae Foundation's housing fair at the Baltimore Convention Center.
The fair runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Two years ago, the last time the fair was held, it drew 5,000 participants. This year, with the real estate market still surging, foundation officials expect a larger turnout for the fair, which will feature approximately 70 exhibitors.
"It's hard to find the information that you need when buying a home," said Maurye McCarthy, director of events for the foundation. "So we really focus on low income, the minorities, the Spanish population we are offering some [workshop] sessions in Spanish this year. We feel it is very important to reach the minorities."
But what will make this different from the 1997 event will be the trolley tours.
According to Tom Jaudan, head of the city's Homeownership Institute, the first four fairs held throughout the city in the last year have generated 81 sales contracts and 49 settlements.
'Reach our goal'
"We are going to reach our goal of 100 very easily," Jaudan said. "We budgeted for 100 grants -- $300,000 -- so we will meet that very easily."
The program, one of the most liberal in the city's arsenal of home-buying incentives, has no income limits, and a purchaser does not have to be a first-time homebuyer. The mortgage amount can go as high as $240,000, the Fannie Mae limit for a conventional loan.
The $3,000 can be applied toward any home for sale in the central neighborhoods, not just the seven or eight homes that will be highlighted on the trolley tour.
According to Gosson, buyers who have taken advantage of the program had annual incomes varying from $11,000 to more than $150,000, and sales prices ranged from $44,000 to $184,000. "It's been more about promoting neighborhoods than really giving people the $3,000 grant," Jaudan said. "When we started this out we wanted to really show people some neighborhoods that we really have not seen and generate some more interest in homeownership in neighborhoods.
Program not complex
"That little incentive of $3,000 certainly drew some people out, but I think we really opened a few people's eyes on other neighborhoods that they have never seen before, which was really the goal of our program."
Gosson added that the key to success was that the program was simple for buyers to understand.
"If people want to live in the city, you shouldn't dictate to them where and how. And there is nothing more frustrating than being a homebuyer and hearing about a potential program that you might be eligible for and then you read the fine print.
"It [an incentive] needs to be easy to use, easy for people to understand. People were really impressed that the city really stepped up with this innovative program, and the service and quality was there, and they walked away from the table having a great experience that had something to do with a city initiative."
But as successful as the trolley tours have been, there are doubts that it will continue next year because of its costs and the work involved in organizing fairs.
"This was a trial with the Fannie Mae Foundation, because it is very expensive to do. They picked up the brunt of the costs," said Gosson, who estimated that the trolleys alone cost almost $6,000 per fair. McCarthy would not comment, other than to say that the foundation has "not started to plan for 2000."
Re-evaluation to come
"We are going to re-evaluate this sometime in October and determine how we move forward next year," Jaudan added. "Do we do a similar promotional event, or do we put all our energy and resources in some other type of promotional event that targets neighborhoods? Maybe there is something else we can do other than trolley tours."
Said Gosson: "It's just a great partnership -- that is what has made it a success. The city has the money and the expertise and the incentives; the foundation has the expertise in putting these fairs together; and we have the expertise of the neighborhoods and the how-to [in] outreach to them. It has been a great experience."
Qualifying for the homebuyer grants A $3,000 voucher will be provided by the city for use toward a down payment or closing costs when the following conditions are satisfied: Be one of the first 20 homebuyers executing contracts within 90 days of the housing fair.
Buyers must close on property within 90 days of the event.
No annual income limits
Mortgage loan may not exceed $240,000.
Buyer must agree to use property as his/her principal residence.
Buyer must use a Fannie Mae-approved lender for mortgage financing.
To be eligible, applicants must obtain trolley tour ticket at Housing Fair booth, visit at least two open houses listed on the tour and have ticket validated, submit executed contract of sale with validated tour ticket to: HomeOwnership Institute, 417 E. Fayette St., Suite 1125, Baltimore, 21202.
For more information, call the Fannie Mae Foundation, 888-752-7170. Information is also available on the Internet at www.livebaltimore.com.