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A housing success story in Hagerstown

January 20, 1997

Bob Maginnis

Herald-Mail editorial page editor

When Mayor Steve Sager announced for a fourth term as mayor, he said his priority would be revitalization of the city's neighborhoods, to boost home ownership here from 38 to 50 percent of households. He could do worse than pattern his program after one that's been working quietly in the city's West End for the past three years.

It's called Hagerstown Neighborhood Housing Services, Inc., and was created in 1993 by a consortium of three local banks to rehabilitate a West End neighborhood that runs roughly from Westside Avenue to Burhans Boulevard.

Home Federal Savings, F&M Bank and Hagerstown Trust originally pledged $50,000 a year to the effort, according to Richard Phoebus, president of the Home Federal. Those three have since upped their annual contribution to $250,000 a year and two new banks - Chevy Chase Savings and Harris Bank - have joined, with an annual commitment of $100,000 apiece.

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In that time, 17 families have received home loans, Phoebus said. That may not sound like a lot, but according to Phoebus, the organization's customers aren't typical homebuyers either.

"None of these loans are going to people who would normally be bankable. They don't have down payments. Some of them have had troubles in their lives and have worked through them," Phoebus said.

The first loan was one HNHS didn't expect to make. In late 1994, the rented house Jean and Gary Volcy lived in burned down, destroying all of their possessions. The program wasn't completely geared up, Phoebus said, but the member banks decided that this was a loan they had to make. In less than six weeks, the Volcys were in their new home, just a block from the one that burned.

Is this a program that could be expanded to cover the entire city?

"I think it has moved faster than we originally anticipated, and I think you can see some changes already," he said.

But Phoebus added that when the program was originally conceived by the Greater Hagerstown Committee, it was decided to concentrate on one neighborhood where there was fairly decent chance to make a turnaround.

"We've made 17 loans here, and we've seen a big change. Had we spread those loans across Hagerstown, it would not have had a noticeable effect," Phoebus said.

Eventually, Phoebus said, the success of this first venture should encourage the creation of others like in neighborhoods across the city.

How does the average person access the program?

For that, Phoebus referred me to Teresa Hartle, executive director of the HNHS, who sees applicants at the HNHS office at 451 Salem Ave.

Hartle explained that the first step is to qualify would-be homeowners. Because the program is for low- and moderate-income buyers, there's a cap on how much a family can earn and still qualify, she said. Then they go through a pre-purchase seminar run by the Community Action Council.

"It's just a preview of the home-buying process - dealing with Realtors and writing the contract. We call it a 'home buyer's eye opener,' " she said.

Then it's time to go shopping. Hartle's office has a list of streets included in the program, and individual Realtors fax her listings in the area.

"I tell them to look for the 'least best' thing they can find," Hartle said, explaining that she's talking about properties that are structurally sound, but not too big. There are small half-double houses in the target area available for $30,000 to $35,000 she said.

Once the buyer picks a property, an inspector checks major items like wiring, plumbing, heating and the roof, Hartle said.

She does not encourage people to buy 'fixer-uppers' because most people in the program don't have the resources to do a lot of that kind of renovation work.

When it's time to do final negotiations, Hartle will go along, if necessary.

"If they need me to, I sit down with them to write the contract," she said.

The final step, is a review of the loan, with representatives of the banks currently involved. If they like the deal, it goes.

In addition, although buyers aren't encouraged to choose houses in need of major renovation, HNHS does have a loan program so homeowners can borrow (with a $10 deposit) some basic hand tools for minor repairs. Yesterday Lowe's and the Hagerstown Planning Department sponsored a visit from the "color doctor" - a paint expert who helps families choose the best hues for their homes.

Turning around a neighborhood - even one like this where Phoebus said there was a real "neighborhood feeling" - will take years, and HNHS is just one part of what needs to be done to improve this city. That doesn't mean we can't celebrate those successes, like HNHS, which occur along the way.

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