- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2001

The District yesterday announced plans to renovate hundreds of vacant homes and sell them to low- and middle-income families, in a partnership with a coalition of churches, private lenders and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The initiative, called Building a Better Community, calls for HUD to sell some 300 houses it owns at a discount to the Church Association for Community Service, U.S. Housing Secretary Mel Martinez said yesterday. The church association will renovate the houses and sell them to families, most at below-market rates.
"This agreement is a powerful demonstration of a partnership that will not only put 300 families into homes, but will also breathe new life into these neighborhoods," Mr. Martinez said. "At a time when Washington and cities around the nation are facing a shortage of affordable housing, every abandoned piece of property is a gold mine and every boarded-up home is somebody's American dream waiting to be realized."
So far, HUD has sold 24 of its foreclosed properties to the church association and has targeted another 124, most in the Southeast and Northeast sections of the city. The church association will sell the properties through its network of more than 60 churches.
The total appraised value of the houses in this agreement exceeds $14 million, HUD officials said. The program, similar to those in 15 other communities around the nation, including Prince George's County, is not expected to cost taxpayers a cent.
D.C. and church officials said they hope this initiative will help turn around pockets of urban blight while helping low-income residents participate in the city's revitalization.
"We have to move from just boarding houses up to converting them into homes for ownership," said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "This initiative will help speed up improvements in the quality of life in neighborhoods."
The Rev. Frank Tucker, chairman of the church association, called the program "good news for the health of the community."
"There are so many left out of the American dream," Mr. Tucker said. "This program will provide a cornerstone to make quality homes affordable and available to all."
D.C. resident and renter Regina Prixley-Davis is hesitant to believe him. The school system bus driver and mother of three has been waiting four years to find an affordable home.
"They all say I don't make enough money, or have credit issues," she said. "Or they put me on waiting lists where my turn never comes. The homes go to people who can pay the down payments, not to people like me."
Mrs. Prixley-Davis, who earns $24,000 annually, says she is trying to remain optimistic, but is tired of trying.
"I have been to so many places like this," she said, referring to events on homeownership. "The only thing I get is kicked to the curb."
Yesterday's news conference, held in front of a newly rehabilitated home in Southeast, remained upbeat until the mayor was questioned about the role of the church association in raising funds for political activities and to pay for a private driver for his mother, Virginia Williams.
That matter is being investigated as part of a larger campaign-finance probe by the D.C. inspector general. The investigation, requested by the mayor earlier this year, involves former staffers who have come under scrutiny for raising funds for an inaugural celebration, the millennium celebration and a prayer breakfast.
Church association officials previously acknowledged raising money for the driver and the prayer breakfast.
Mr. Williams has been criticized for failing to disclose all amounts raised. Yesterday, he said he has been proud to raise funds for the community's benefit, such as for a prayer breakfast. He assured "proper controls" over the initiative and promised "no appearance" of impropriety.
"I believe [HUD and the private financing companies] would not be partnering in the program unless the church association will provide good management controls," he said.
Mr. Tucker said he didn't know about the money and said the IG is "doing his work." He declined to comment further.

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