Originally created 04/08/00

Mission to help area



ATLANTA -- The neighborhood around Savannah's defunct Charity Hospital could be described as the perfect test case for a theory popular with social advocates who think they might have found the magic bullet.

One initiative, they say, can stabilize neighborhoods, lower crime, reduce teen-age pregnancy, raise student test scores and restore civic pride. And everyone agrees those would be welcome results around Charity, one of the nation's first hospitals catering to blacks.

What single factor could do all these good things? Improved housing.

Studies show improved living conditions change people's attitudes, according to Stacey Davis, president of the Fannie Mae Foundation. And who better to help communities repair themselves than religious organizations, a group the foundation addressed during a national conference in Atlanta on Friday.

"In the wake of federal devolution during the past decade, the task of providing affordable housing has fallen largely to community-based nonprofit groups," Ms. Davis said.

Mercy Housing, one of the largest faith-based housing developers, learned of Charity Hospital through one of its affiliates, the Sisters of Mercy, which operates St. Joseph's Hospital in Savannah. Nationally, Mercy Housing has built 5,200 housing units, and it aims to begin refurbishing Charity Hospital and the nearby Florence Street School some time this fall.

"Because we are nonprofit, our mission is to provide the housing and to be there to serve the community," said Kathleen Brownlee, president of Mercy Housing Southeast. "And we are there for the long haul. We are not looking to turn it over in five to 10 years and sell it for a profit."

Churches and temples often are located in the communities they seek to rebuild. Plus, their leaders are willing to tackle the less-profitable projects that don't interest commercial developers.

Usually, the religious organizations offer counseling on money management so the people they help buy a house can handle their finances well enough to hold on to it. That instruction is a critical component in reducing defaults and building wealth, Ms. Davis and other experts say.

Blacks tend to shun the stock market and other investments, leaving the equity in their home as their most important tangible asset, according to Gloria Tinubu, economics professor at Spellman College in Atlanta.

Homes not only tie their owners to their neighborhoods, but they also provide a resource that can serve as a financial cushion and as collateral for student loans or to launch a business, she said. Because home ownership is 30 percent lower for blacks and hispanics than the nation as a whole, those groups have less of a legacy to leave their children, meaning each generation must build its own wealth purely out of savings instead of starting with a foundation.

The federal government now offers several programs the groups can tap into, such as tax credits to lure investors and mortgages that require only a 1 percent down payment.

The preachers and volunteers meeting in Atlanta on Friday swapped stories about their successes, ranging from "sweat-equity" projects where homeowners help build their new houses to qualify for financial assistance to savings plans where $50 a month can grow to a down payment in two years with church matching funds. At times, the conference had the feel of a revival, complete with amens.

One thing was certain: Religious groups are now major residential developers, building 350,000 units nationwide in the last 40 years.

"Most of us have been taught that all of our economic empowerment will come on the other side" as in Heaven, said the Rev. James Dixon, pastor of Northwest Community Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. "Christians act like they are invading new territory, but actually God has given us dominion. This is our mission."

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.