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Housing's Helping Hands
Charities Strive to Make Washington More Affordable

By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2007

In a District neighborhood on the mend, in the shadow of Gallaudet
University, Sandy Romero and her family found their oasis -- a renovated
three-bedroom condo.

"The boys, when they came in, they thought it was a hotel or a resort,"
Romero said. "They thought it was so beautiful."

Without a hand, Romero admits, buying a condo would have been
impossible. Her husband wasn't working at the time. Her credit was shot.
Her budgeting skills were limited.

She found the help she needed from Manna, a D.C. charitable
organization. The nonprofit group, which renovated the condominium
building, sold her family the unit this year at a below-market rate and
provided financial advice along the way.

"They taught me how to save money, how to fix my credit," she said. "If
I had gone to Bank of America on my own, there's no way I would
have gotten a loan."

"With the condo fee, it's $1,100 a month," she said. "It's pretty
doable."

Although housing prices have softened in parts of the region, it hasn't
done much to increase the supply of places that people with lower
incomes can afford. The median home price in the region remains almost
double the national average. The mortgage crisis means foreclosures are
on the rise and the pool of loans available has shrunk. So some
charities are stepping up their efforts to help people keep a roof over
their heads -- sometimes with short-term shelter, sometimes with the
financial boost they need to rent or buy.

"It has been harder to find decent affordable housing," said Ken
Ellison, senior housing adviser for So Others Might Eat in the District.
"It has worsened as housing prices have gone up and with condo
conversions." His group is in the midst of a campaign to add 1,000
rental units for "extremely low-income residents."

Although the jobless rate in the region is low and the economy vibrant
compared with some other places, about 7 percent of the region's 5
million residents live below the poverty level, and most homes remain
beyond the reach of low- and even moderate-income families, according to
a recent report by the Urban Institute. The median price of resale homes
in metro Washington is $438,000, compared with $220,800 nationwide,
according to the National Association of Realtors.

"A lot of people are being left behind by that prosperity," said Peter
Tatian, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.

Some charities are offering counseling on finances, foreclosures and
mortgages. Some are providing the financing for organizations to buy or
build affordable real estate. Some are helping tenants buy the buildings
where they rent. Some, such as Manna, not only provide financial
counseling but also acquire homes to sell to low- and moderate-income
people who qualify.

Some agencies have focused on specific neighborhoods. The Marshall
Heights Community Development Organization, for instance, primarily
targets Ward 7 in Northeast Washington, east of the Anacostia River.

The group operates Willis P. Greene Manor, a 60-unit facility on Nannie
Helen Burroughs Avenue NE that serves as transitional housing for people
trying to get on their feet. Residents get their own room and share a
bathroom down the hall.

The organization is also in the midst of a project. It is redeveloping
the 569-unit Mayfair Mansions apartment complex, at 3819 Jay St. NE.
Ultimately, the group said, 160 units will be for affordable
homeownership and the rest affordable rentals.

"There's a lot of development in the city, particularly east of the
river, which has been described as the last frontier," said Angela
Copeland, director of communications and resource development for the
Marshall Heights community group. "We want to make sure people who have
lived here and worshiped over the years aren't displaced."

In Virginia, AHC runs 19 affordable rental apartment complexes in
Arlington County and plans to add more than 200 units in the next year.

Catherine Bucknam, director of community relations for AHC, said many
rental units in Arlington County are pricey, averaging about $1,300 a
month for a one bedroom.

"That's pretty darn expensive," she said. "We've seen a lot of
affordable units that have been converted to upscale rentals, or they
have gone condo."

Funding is always an issue. Many organizations get money from public and
private entities, individual donors, and foundations. December is often
the busiest time of the year for private donations.

"We are always touched by regular working people in Ward 7, but we are
working to increase the philanthropic donations," Copeland said. "We are
working to do better."

George Rothman, president of Manna, said charities are particularly
challenged when trying to buy properties at a time of high prices.

"That's the biggest obstacle for us," he said. "It's the acquisition of
the projects, the vacant land, the vacant buildings."

He said, "The gap between the market rate and affordable housing is
getting greater."

Some organizations, like the Calvert Foundation in Bethesda and the
OpenDoor Housing Fund in Silver Spring, lend money to develop affordable
housing around the region. The Calvert Foundation also provides funding
nationally and internationally.

In 2007, the Calvert Foundation's loan portfolio for affordable U.S.
housing grew by 15 percent over 2006, when it distributed about $17
million, said Lisa Hall, the director of lending. Some of the local
recipients have included Manna, AHC, and Habitat for Humanity D.C. and
Montgomery.

Art Stevens, relations manager for the Calvert Foundation, said people
can donate money or stock to his group, or provide a loan and get a
return on the investment.

"No investor has ever lost capital," Stevens said. "And we intend to
maintain that record."

But he added, "We structure it so you can't make a ton of money."

In the current real estate climate, he said, the demand for loans "has
increased dramatically, more than we can meet."

Of all the housing-related charities, Habitat for Humanity is perhaps
the most recognizable. Its volunteers build homes, and it has chapters
in counties throughout the Washington region.

Charlene McCall, vice president of the Prince George's County chapter,
said her group has built or rehabbed 21 homes since 1988.

To receive a Habitat house, she said, "You must have a need, a way of
paying a non-interest loan and be willing to work with Habitat for
Humanity for the duration of the loan."

For many prospective homeowners, getting their finances and credit in
order is key.

Romero, who bought the condo near Gallaudet, said she learned a lot of
tricks from Manna about saving money.

She works full time at Children's National Medical Center as a staff
assistant in the ophthalmology department and part time at the Latin
American Youth Center in the District. Her husband, Edgard, recently
landed a job as an attendance coordinator at a charter school.

"They asked for my pay stub and what I spend it on," Romero said. "They
actually taught me to save a lot of money, how to cut corners."

She said she bought squiggly, energy-saving compact fluorescent light
bulbs and saved $20 to $25 a month on her electric bill. She changed her
home phone and cellphone plans to basic ones, getting rid of such frills
as call forwarding "that we really don't know how to use."

"They taught me how to read a bill," said Romero, who recently joined
the Manna board. "All the extra things added up."

Sherane Berkeley, a reservation manager at a local hotel, also learned
some things at Manna.

"That Starbucks you want to get every week, that
adds up," she said. "It taught me to save money and put it aside."

Now she's about to move into a three-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath duplex that
Manna built with volunteers in Northeast Washington.

"It's part of everybody's dream," she said. "I'm a single parent with my
son. I'm thinking about him. I'm thinking about his future. I really
want a quality of life for my son and I."

Stefan, 16, echoed his mother's enthusiasm.

"I'm thinking, living so long in apartments, it's kind of exciting to
know that your mom has found a new place," he said. "Pretty soon, we're
going to be in our own place. I'm, like, speechless."


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