Home Work

The Pursuit of Affordable Housing Reaches 25 Years at Interfaith Housing Alliance

By Kate McDermott | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 10.13.16 – Feature, Frederick Scene

The novelist Thomas Wolfe famously said you can’t go home again. But that’s what Tom Ryan wanted. After earning his teaching degree at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in Southern Maryland, Ryan wanted to return to his native turf of Frederick County. He landed a job as a social studies teacher at Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School but soon discovered that even with a college degree and a good job, finding housing he could afford in Frederick County was difficult.

Ryan is certainly not alone. The Community Foundation of Frederick County’s 2011 Needs Assessment identified the lack of affordable housing as the area’s greatest need, noting that Frederick County’s supply of affordable housing declined from 75 percent of the rental stock in 2000 to just under 60 percent in 2008.

Interfaith Housing is trying to change that. The nonprofit has spent the past 25 years developing and managing more than 1,180 units of affordable housing throughout Frederick County and the surrounding region. One of its newest projects will bring two new rental communities to Downtown Frederick that will help address the area’s urgent need for more affordable housing.

Doing the Math

Determining who qualifies for affordable housing depends on whom you ask.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined that the area median income (AMI) for the Washington region, of which Frederick County is a part, is $109,200 for a family of four and $76,440 for a single household, making the area’s income level among the highest in the country. (Frederick County has defined its median income as closer to $87,000.) Since affordable housing standards can range from 20 percent to 80 percent of median income, households earning up to $87,400 may qualify for programs.

In Frederick County, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree earns a starting salary of $41,000, which is the lowest in the state. Teacher salaries are similar to those of first-responders such as police and fire officers. Medical assistants and hospitality providers are in the same salary category, as well. That is why the terms “affordable housing” and “workforce housing” are often used interchangeably. Despite the critical contributions they make to the community, many of these employees are forced to move out of Frederick County, usually west or north, to find housing they can afford.

But Interfaith Housing wants to reverse that trend. In 2018, it will open 71 workforce apartments on Sinclair Way in Downtown Frederick to be followed by 59 more apartments in the former Citizens Services building at 520 N. Market St.

This new housing represents the future of workforce housing, says Mary Ellen Mitchell, Interfaith Housing’s director of community relations. “They are located near major employment centers as well as TransIT routes,” she says, making the housing attractive to millennials, seniors and working families.

But workforce housing advocates say creating safe, affordable housing is about more than just making sure people have a dry roof over their heads. “Research has shown that providing housing stability has a tremendous impact on the next generation,” Mitchell says. “It helps reduce the need for other social services because you don’t have the impacts of constantly changing schools, daycares, etc., when a family’s housing situation changes.”

To further create a sense of community and belonging, Interfaith Housing will employ “community coordinators” at its new Frederick apartments to help residents establish support networks such as homework clubs and neighborhood associations, as well as connections to daycare, summer camps and Meals on Wheels.

Demand Exceeds Supply

Despite the “Interfaith” in its name, the organization is not affiliated with any particular church. As an independent nonprofit organization, it works closely with government affordable housing initiatives to benefit residents of Allegany, Washington, Frederick, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland and Franklin and Cumberland counties in Pennsylvania.

Its two new Frederick projects are being made possible through the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. “There are very few nonprofits that are engaged in tax credit development,” says Patricia Motter, Interfaith Housing’s president and CEO, noting that the approval process is “not for the faint of heart.” She says tax credit development is a very complicated and lengthy process that requires input and cooperation from numerous partners, including developers, builders and local jurisdictions. Yet without it, “these things don’t get built. Conventional financing doesn’t work,” says Bruce Zavos, president and CEO of Zavos Architecture+Design in Frederick.

Zavos, who has been a member of the Interfaith Housing board of directors for years and will assume the chairmanship this month, designed the new apartments on Sinclair Way and North Market Street. The buildings must fit into existing neighborhoods, which has added another layer of complexity to the undertaking. “In-fill housing (adding housing units into an existing neighborhood) always presents unique challenges,” he says. “But we’ve worked hard to make sure we will not disrupt the fabric of the community and to make sure that the new units reflect the scale of the surrounding structures so they blend into the existing streetscape.”

Having also served on Frederick County’s Affordable Housing Council, Zavos knows the combined 130 apartments at Sinclair Way and 520 North Market will fill up quickly. “In fact, there will be a waiting list,” he says.

Building Equity

In addition to its workforce rental housing, Interfaith Housing also participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Purchase and Repair home ownership program, which provides no-money-down mortgages to qualified buyers who commit to investing their own “sweat equity” into the repair of their homes.

Thanks to that program, Tom Ryan found his way home again, to a two-bedroom, two-bath house just outside Frederick’s city limits. “When I first started looking to buy a house, I was so discouraged by how little my salary would qualify me for,” he recalls. But then he learned of Interfaith Housing’s participation in the Purchase and Repair program.

To date, the organization has helped 24 families in Frederick County purchase homes through the no-money-down program that does not require buyers to purchase private mortgage insurance and builds the cost of repairs into the monthly mortgage payment. For Ryan, that meant having money in his budget for drywall repairs, a new roof and central air. Yet, even with all those improvements, “I am paying significantly less than what I was paying in rent,” he says. Ryan is so sold on the work of Interfaith Housing that he has recently signed on to serve on the organization’s board of directors.

Keena Jackson found herself in a similar situation. A Frederick County native, she wanted to buy a home in the area, but her salary as a certified medical assistant was making it difficult. “I was really afraid that I was not going to be able to live where I grew up and stay close to my family,” she says.

When she learned about the Purchase and Repair program and its terms, she recalls thinking, “Is this too good to be true?”

Jackson ended up purchasing a 105-year-old house in Brunswick and the difference between her mortgage and previous rent is only $20. She is now building equity and demonstrating how homeownership has long been considered one of the key components of creating personal wealth.

Her home has required an investment of some sweat equity on her part, including new insulation, deck repairs and siding. “If you’d told me a few years ago that I would know how to do siding, I’d have said you were crazy,” she says. “But there is such a sense of accomplishment in knowing that this is my place. I can finally hang things on the walls. It feels like home.”

The Next 25 years

Interfaith’s Motter says that one of the things that sets the organization apart from others in workforce housing development is its efforts to address the problem through a variety of corollary programs. “We are multi-faceted,” she says. “Through our Housing Matters program, we are committed to working with other community partners to bring financial education and housing counseling services out into the community.”

IHA staff have worked with local organizations such as Head Start, Advocates for Homeless Families and the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick to provide workshops on basic banking, credit counseling and budgeting. Motter, who came to the organization eight years ago after working for a transitional shelter in Flint, Mich., says she continues to be impressed by how Frederick’s network of nonprofits work together.

Looking forward, the organization will also be very focused on the needs of the area’s senior population. “Frederick County is outpacing the rest of Maryland for growth of the 55-plus market,” Motter says. The Housing Authority is currently working on plans for 101 units of new senior housing on Motter Avenue in Frederick aimed at addressing some of that need.

Another key service area Motter wants to address is the need for transitional housing, particularly for those coming out of shelters such as Heartly House and the Rescue Mission’s new Faith House. “There is a real gap for people in transitional housing,” she says. “So we will continue to look for ways to create housing opportunities for those residents.”

In short, the need for affordable housing is not going away. Whether it is millennials struggling to build their futures while also dealing with mountains of student debt, seniors who need safe, accessible housing or working families who want to offer their children stability and a sense of community, Frederick County’s needs are only likely to grow with time. And that is why Motter says Interfaith Housing plans to stick around. “We are in this for the long haul,” she says.