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Nonprofit stresses its role as developer


HABITAT FOR Humanity is one of the quintessential feel-good nonprofit groups. After all, few things are more basic than providing shelter to those who need it. Even former President Jimmy Carter has made working with Habitat one of his principal volunteer activities.

Mike Mitchell isn't interested in erasing that image, just adding to it.

Mitchell is the executive director of Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, a group whose activities theoretically encompass Baltimore and Baltimore County but practically have been concentrated to date in the modest-to-struggling Northeast neighborhoods of Waverly, Better Waverly and Pen Lucy.

These days, Mitchell seems as proud of a report on the economic impact of the group's activities as he is of the vacant shells that have been turned into new homes or are under construction.

"We want to demonstrate to funders and donors that there's an extension to the human impact that we create," Mitchell says.

"People know about our dedication," he goes on. "TV stations love to come and do the 20 seconds of us passing the key to the new homeowner. 'Isn't Habitat nice?' Yes, we are. But we're a developer, too, like any other developer in the city."

The report is the work of the Sage Policy Group, whose president, Anirban Basu, is a member of Chesapeake Habitat's board.

That relationship might raise some questions about the objectivity of the report. Mitchell says Sage was paid for its work but won't say how much. But it's hard to quarrel with the conclusion that by rehabilitating some 90 homes since its inception, mostly for families living below the poverty level, the organization has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in city tax revenues and several million dollars in spending.

For example, the report says more than $5 million has gone into the purchase of construction materials and services for plumbing, electrical work and other trades too specialized for volunteers.

It says the houses were purchased for an average of about $5,300 each, including 19 bought for $1 each. They now have an assessed value of about six times that amount, for an aggregate total of about $2.8 million. The city's annual property tax revenue on the houses is about $64,000 a year.

And that's not all. The report notes that the city has received $237,000 from the payment of back property taxes on some of the properties and an additional $46,000 in transfer taxes from Chesapeake Habitat's purchase and resale of the houses.

Mitchell acknowledges that a motive besides curiosity exists for Chesapeake Habitat's desire to quantify the economic effect of its work: It wants to expand the number of houses it rehabs each year, and to do that, it will need to raise more money.

The organization hopes to complete at least 13 houses this year, and gradually increase that number to 20 a year over the next couple of years. To do that, it will need to increase its budget beyond its current $1.6 million, about 80 percent of which comes from foundations and grants and schools, churches and other groups that contribute to the rehabilitation of a specific house. And it is looking at new ways to raise money: On Saturday, it will hold a sale of donated building materials and equipment at its headquarters in a former car dealership on Keswick Road in Hampden.

And Chesapeake Habitat is expanding into new communities. In July, it hopes to settle on a dozen vacant properties in Washington Village that the city has acquired through its Project 5000 anti-blight initiative. Two-thirds of the buyers of its renovated properties live below the poverty line, Mitchell says, and the effort will help preserve a modest amount of affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood.

The organization is also bidding on eight blighted houses being offered by the city in the Patterson Park area, where Mitchell is head of the community association. The city has expressed a "strong preference" for proposals that maximize affordability and Mitchell says, "We're really competitive there."

He says Chesapeake Habitat shuns the city's most distressed neighborhoods but is interested in working in areas in need of stabilization, where it can get a cluster of eight to 10 vacant properties.

The effect of the nonprofit's work can perhaps be seen most clearly on Cator Avenue in Pen Lucy, where Chesapeake Habitat has renovated or is in the process of renovating and taking control of 15 houses in a three-block stretch, reclaiming the properties from the ranks of eyesores and stash houses for illegal drugs.

Robert Nowlin, a longtime community activist and resident of one of those blocks, said the work has made the entire area more attractive, helping to prevent further abandonment. "I think what Habitat is doing is nothing but pure benefit for our community," he said.

The Urban Chronicle column in Thursday's editions misspelled the name of Pen Lucy community activist Robert Nowlin. [misspelled as Robert Known.]
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