Vinnie Quayle, executive director of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, drives north on Loch Raven Boulevard, turning west just before he hits the city-county line into the Northeast Baltimore community of Idlewood.
He stops first at an end-of-group brick rowhouse with water damage on the first-floor ceiling that St. Ambrose bought last month. Then he stops at another two-story end unit that the nonprofit group bought in October, where workers are putting the finishing touches on such improvements as a new deck, brass mailbox, refinished floors and recessed lighting.
They are among 75 properties in a small swath of Northeast that St. Ambrose has bought in the past 16 months from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at a 50 percent discount after foreclosure on their federally backed mortgages.
Of those, St. Ambrose has already renovated and resold about half -- at prices ranging from $116,500 to $175,000.
"That's the exciting thing about this -- since October of 2004, not one FHA-foreclosed house [in the area] has been turned into a rental," said Quayle, a one-time Jesuit priest and longtime housing activist who has been at St. Ambrose since the 1970s. "In the past, they would go on the market, and 65 percent would have sold not to homeowners but to outside investors."
"Home ownership is being salvaged here," he added.
It was a year ago next week -- Valentine's Day 2005, to be exact -- that Quayle and federal and city officials gathered at a home renovated by St. Ambrose in the Perring Loch neighborhood and announced a nearly $300,000 federal grant to allow St. Ambrose to expand the program by purchasing properties foreclosed on by private lenders.
Quayle said that money has not yet been received, so that part of the program has not yet begun. But he says the original program, part of HUD's revamped nationwide "Asset Control Area" initiative launched in 2003 to stabilize neighborhoods and combat speculation property-flipping, is going well.
"The remarkable thing is we've completed 37 houses in a little over 12 months," he said. "We've never done anything like that. Until this year, we were doing 10 to 15 houses a year."
City and HUD officials are equally enthusiastic. In a statement, the federal housing agency, which has programs in 13 other cities ranging from Belcamp in Harford County to New York, said it plans to renew its two-year agreement with St. Ambrose when the original pact expires later this year.
The program is a subtle one. There's no new development to look at: The houses St. Ambrose has bought are scattered on many different blocks in 10 distinct, largely middle-class neighborhoods. And they are not vacant shells that have been empty for years and require "gut" rehabs; most were occupied until very recently, and are in decent, livable shape.
According to Quayle, the problem is that too many investors want to slap a coat of paint on a property and rent it out as quickly as possible -- a process that if continued can create problems a few years down the road. St. Ambrose, by contrast, has put in between $40,000 and $60,000 per property and has taken an average of about $15,000 as its development fee.
"I don't want to sound anti-tenant," Quayle said. "I'm not. I know the history here."
Quayle acknowledges affordablity has become an issue in the city in the past 18 months, but stresses that is not the point of the program. St. Ambrose wanted to open up the houses to all buyers, but acceded to HUD in making them available to those earning no more than 115 percent of the regional median household income of about $70,000 a year.
"We didn't think affordability was the problem in these neighborhoods," he said. "We thought stagnation of the housing market was."
In the past 18 months, the average price of a house in the 10 northeast neighborhoods has increased by $50,000 to $140,000. Even so, 13 of the last 19 homes that were sold were bought by teachers or police officers, who get first crack at the properties under federal regulations.
With the supply of FHA-foreclosed houses shriveling in the original area, which also includes such neighborhoods as Northwood and Chinquapin Park, St. Ambrose has been expanding into Waltherson and Belair-Edison.
The latter should provide plenty of opportunities: Over the past five years, Belair-Edison had a greater concentration of FHA-foreclosed properties than any neighborhood in the city, according to mapping by the Philadelphia-based Reinvestment Fund.
HUD rebuffed St. Ambrose's request to be allowed to buy properties in Belair-Edison for 25 percent of their value instead of half. But Quayle said the federal housing agency agreed to sell St. Ambrose two detached houses in Northeast Baltimore for $1 apiece on condition that any profits be put back into Belair-Edison.
After $80,000 worth of work, the first of those, in Beverly Hills, is on the market for $250,000.
The profits should be able to fund the renovation of several houses, Quayle said.