A home of one's own – with help from the church

When Warren and Myrel Ross wanted to move, there was never a question in their minds. They would have to rent – again.

They thought they were in no shape to buy a home. Most months, they were paying nearly 30 bills, and their credit was, in Mr. Ross's words, "shot."

Help, however, came from an unusual source: the church. After hearing about available housing during a Sunday sermon, the Rosses turned to the church to help put their finances in order and to find a place in a condominium across the street. A clergyman even gave them a $7,000 loan from his own pocket.

It is one of the untold stories of the past decade's homeownership explosion. From Harlem to Hayward, more churches in urban America are taking an active role in helping their members – and others – buy homes.

The new activity is, in part, born of necessity. Years of blight and crime have taken a toll on the size and vitality of some urban congregations, as residents have fled to the suburbs. Yet for most churches, the work is also seen as a natural extension of their reason for being: to lift the communities they serve.

In response, some are holding home-buying workshops. Others are pooling members' resources, forming cooperatives to attract lenders. In the most blighted areas, many are going so far as to build or buy their own housing, typically open to everyone, including nonchurch members.

Improving church members' lives

With homeownership for blacks and Hispanics slightly below 50 percent nationwide – compared with 72 percent for whites – it's seen by many housing experts as an innovative way to reach underserved populations. Buttressed by the Bush administration's support of faith-based programs, it's an approach that is gaining favor – and success.

"More groups are getting into community development and housing as a way to improve the lives of their parishioners," says Roger Williams, vice president of community lending at Fannie Mae, the nation's largest mortgage-financing company. "So in the future you will see more groups involved."

The evidence is widespread. In San Francisco, a cooperative of five churches will begin construction next month of 20 town houses where a parking lot used to be. In Miami, St. Agnes Episcopal Church is putting up 85 single-family homes. And Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York, led by pastor and former US Rep. Floyd Flake, has built hundreds of houses.

As a reflection of this increasing interest, some 500 lenders, developers, and faith-based organizations from across the United States will meet in Los Angeles this autumn at a national conference to examine how to better serve this growing niche.

Bedrocks of community

In many ways, it's a natural fit.

Many of the churches that have been the most active are those in the most blighted urban areas. When banks and businesses leave, churches are often the only institutions left. From the first days of the Civil Rights movement, such steadfastness has made churches bedrocks of minority communities – and leading agents for change.

"This is the place that people go for trusted advice," says Sheila Burks of Fannie Mae's Bay Area office. "Churches are the perfect place. They're not going anywhere."

At least, not if they can help it.

A decade ago, the Rev. Richard Tolliver of St. Edmund's Episcopal Church in Chicago took over a congregation in crisis. Once the seat of the South Side's burgeoning black middle class, St. Edmund's had, in recent years, found itself at the center of a collapsing inner-city shell. In 20 years, the population around the church fell from 90,000 to 19,000.

The parish was dying.

"It became very clear that unless the neighborhood was revitalized, this congregation did not have a future," says Dr. Tolliver, "and no other institution was capable of being the catalyst."

So St. Edmund's started. Spending $42 million on renovation and new construction, it refurbished 395 apartments in 13 buildings and built a home for senior citizens. This autumn, St. Edmund's plans to push forward with two more projects totaling $21 million: the construction of 69 new apartments and the transformation of a former public-housing low rise into a mixed-income community.

The change has been dramatic. "There's a palpable sense of hope among many residents," says Tolliver. "I've had people stop me on the street and thank me for the price of their house going up."

The Rosses could do the same. Here in Hayward, in a quiet neighborhood set back off the main road of strip malls and Hispanic restaurants, the value of their three-bedroom condo has gone up nearly $100,000 in the 10 years they've lived here. Since they refinanced, the number of bills they pay has dropped to eight.

"I didn't know the advantages of having a plan and keeping it up until we refinanced," says the shaven-headed and goateed Mr. Ross, leaning forward on his leather sofa with one eye on Barry Bonds at bat.

"We got all this money, and were able to pay our bills."

Ross gives all the credit to Glad Tidings. Led by the Rev. J.W. Macklin, the church has bought most of the apartment buildings and condominiums surrounding the church and renovated them.

A neighborhood renaissance

Now and then, Ross hears stories about how the neighborhood once was. He's told of the drug dealers who owned every street corner, the death threats they handed out like parking tickets to anyone who dared defy them, and the police officers who were too afraid to even set foot here.

On this cloudless spring day, though, a half-dozen kids gossip across the street on new-mown lawns, while a couple pushes their baby stroller. The Rosses say they even know a local policeman.

Although all the drug dealers aren't gone, 10 years ago, "you wouldn't have seen any of this," says Mrs. Ross. "Now, I feel like I could knock on any door, and it's like I've got family there."

Some, like the Rosses, are members of Glad Tidings. Many are not. Yet the church's role in this modest renaissance is unmistakable. Occasionally, Mr. Macklin takes his Sunday sermons outside. Next month, a fair will sprawl across the church grounds.

The message is clear: These are your streets; take them back. So far, homeownership has been the church's most effective weapon. "We've got to take the church out of church and get it into the neighborhood," says Mr. Ross. "The neighborhood is much better, but we can't stop now."

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