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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
801 W. Berry St. is one of the properties HANDS purchased.

HANDS to renovate West Central homes

Nonprofit takes more active role in community

The Journal Gazette

– Not too many years ago, the Housing and Neighborhood Development Services board was not much more than a citizen advisory committee.

Members were well-meaning and involved, but their role was largely limited to overseeing a loan portfolio.

Not anymore.

“Today they’re more of a public policy entity,” said Heather Presley-Cowen, the city of Fort Wayne’s deputy director of community development. “But it took a long time to turn that corner.”

To an outsider, the structure can seem complicated: HANDS is a 501(c)4 quasi-governmental nonprofit created in 1975 to handle federal block grants aimed at homeless and housing issues. As a public corporation of the city, city staff support HANDS through the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services.

For years, the board stuck to overseeing the programs HANDS Inc. runs, such as housing rehab and loan programs. But in 2004, the city reorganized its Community Development Department into four areas: Neighborhood Code Enforcement, Redevelopment, Community Planning and the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Services.

“So who is HANDS, then?” asked Presley-Cowen. “Do they stop existing? Or support the OHNS? They didn’t really have an identity, and the community didn’t know what they did.”

So officials decided a transformation was in order.

“They went from a reactive body to a proactive policymaker,” she said.

The body that was once focused on maintaining the city’s existing housing stock now advises the mayor on what parts of the city should be invested in, and how.

“These are not easy decisions, because the fact is when you choose to spend $1 there, you’re choosing not to spend that $1 somewhere else,” Presley-Cowen said.

Now, HANDS is studying issues and finding ways to solve them. For example, it was well-known that people living on the southeast side of the city were less likely to be given a loan to fix up their houses, and officials assumed it was because they had poor credit scores.

But after researching the issue, they found that credit scores weren’t the issue – home values were. Banks were unwilling to lend money for rehabs because even after being fixed up, the values of the homes wouldn’t be high enough to mitigate the risk of making the loan.

So now HANDS is examining the possibility of a program to bridge the gap in value. The banks would still make the rehab loan, but the city money – via federal grants – would be in place to make up the difference, in much the same way as the Neighborhood Stabilization Program works.

In that program, when the cost of a distressed home and the cost of fixing it up add up to more than it’s worth even after the rehab, the city makes up the difference. In this case, the city will essentially be adding collateral for a home equity loan through a regular bank.

“We already know they can pay it back because they have good credit,” Presley-Cowen said. “And when they do, it can be used to help someone else. And because you’re only putting in 20 percent, you can help five times as many people.”

A more concrete example can already be seen in the West Central neighborhood.

HANDS had federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant money that was about to expire; it also wanted to increase the availability of rental housing in and near downtown, where demand outstrips supply. So the board directed OHNS staff to find houses on key corridors into downtown that the market had proven it did not want but were not so far gone they would be money pits.

OHNS staff found eight houses in the West Central neighborhood, and the HANDS board purchased them for about $400,000 total. The houses will be rehabbed and sold as rental units. The federal grant will make up the difference between the market value and the cost of bringing the distressed property back to life.

In addition, adjacent homeowners will be eligible to purchase the homes, even if they wouldn’t qualify under the normal requirements. The idea, Presley-Cowen said, is not only to reward homeowners who have stuck with the neighborhood, but to put the house in the hands of a landlord unlikely to let it go bad again.

Officials expect work to begin soon and hope to have people moving into the restored houses by fall.

dstockman@jg.net

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