Homeowner Spotlight: David Blenman

David Blenman, a paramedic firefighter in Baltimore County, purchased a St. Ambrose home in the Glenham-Belford neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore at the end of last year. We stopped by his home this week to see how he was settling in and making the house his home.

Blenman got connected to St. Ambrose through his realtor, and after touring several Cape Cod homes he was surprised to find that the Glenham-Belford home was such a perfect fit.What attracted Mr. Blenman to his home was the size and the openness. The yard was an added benefit, which is spacious but manageable.

The open layout is actually one of the home’s new features. When St. Ambrose Housing Development acquired the home in 2015 we removed a wall to enlarge the kitchen and incorporate it more fluidly into the living space. St. Ambrose also added new flooring, cabinets, counter tops, light fixtures, and appliances.

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For Blenman, the homebuying  process was straightforward and really exciting. Blenman completed his homebuyer education course through Harbell and was diligent about completeing all the necessary paperwork in a timely way.  As a first time homebuyer, Blenman qualified for the Grand Slam Program through the city as well as closing cost assistance from the National Fair Housing Alliance, which is made available through St. Ambrose. Everything really fell into place for Blenman, and he was actually able to close on his home two days ahead of schedule.

It was an exciting time when he sat down to do the math on what he could afford when it came to buying a home. Not only is his monthly payment just as manageable as a rent payment, “it’s mine,” Blenman commented significantly.

And he really has made the home his own. The house is fully furnished and impeccably cared for, complete with a rec room in the basement and a master bedroom suite upstairs, features that add comfort and privacy to this compact home.

As Mr. Blenman points out, between the yard and the living area, it would be easy to host a family function without feeling too crowded, but the home is also a comfortable size for himself and his 14 year old son who lives with him part time. It was also essential that his daughter, who is stationed in Seattle with the Navy, has someplace to come home to.

St. Ambrose homes are offered first to teachers, firefighters, policemen, and emergency personnel as part of HUD’s “Good Neighbor Next Door Program.” The Good Neighbor program encourages our community’s public servants to support neighborhood revitalization by becoming homeowners.  When asked what Blenman is most proud of in his 6 year career with the fire department, he said “just being capable of doing the job.” He admits it’s not for everyone and that it takes heart to go into the fire.

Blenman certainly lives up to the “Good Neighbor” name, before buying his home he had rented an apartment in an older gentleman’s home on the west side of town. Blenman was both a tenant and keeper, taking care of some maintenance items around the house and checking in with his landlord periodically to ensure all was well.

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On buying his own home, Blenman admits humbly, “sometimes I come home and I’m still in disbelief that I’m a homeowner.”

 

Baltimore City Water Rate Increase – Flushing Your Money Down the Drain?

By Charlotte Clarke, Senior Law Clerk

Earlier this summer, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) announced a three year plan to increase water rates by almost 33% by 2019: 9.9% on October 11, 2016, 9.9% on July 1, 2017, and 9.9% on July 1, 2018. DPW Director Rudy S. Chow announced in late August that the final quarterly water bills will arrive for city consumers in September, and the new monthly billing system will start in October.

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The stated purpose of the increases is to cover the cost of various water and wastewater capital improvements, pursuant to the Director’s duty to recommend rates and charges so that water utilities are self-sustaining. On its website DPW explains that the average age of the City’s large water mains is 75 years, and renewal or replacement is required in many sections. There are also additional costs associated with the new BaltiMeters, which are promised to ensure accurate and timely meter readings and to overall be more customer-friendly.

Valid as some of these reasons may be, they all sound vaguely familiar. In July of 2013, rates went up by 15% to fund the new state of the art  BaltiMeters and billing system. The increase “ensured” faster repair and replacement of aging infrastructure. In 2014 the rates increased by 11% in order to replace water mains and provide more accurate and reliable water meters, and to improve the billing system. DPW has also publicly stated that in the last 19 years they completed almost 20 miles of water main replacement and rehab.

It is hard not to wonder how the increased funding from prior increases was spent, and how it is that so much more new funding is already required. Does it really cost 33% to create a more customer friendly system? Aren’t there alternative ways to make the system more customer-friendly?

In addition to begging these questions, the new rate structure itself is also puzzling. The old rate structure applied a minimum quarterly charge set by meter size, and it was assessed until the property was formally abandoned, plus a consumption charge that is calculated by cubic feet of water use (units). DPW explained that with the new rate structure they are eliminating the quarterly minimum charge. According to the Board of Estimates Agenda for July 27, 2016, the new water bill is determined by applying a variable rate to each customer’s consumption and adding a fixed rate component. It seems like the DPW is simply replacing the terms “minimum quarterly charge” with “fixed rate component,” because essentially they are identical terms that add a standard charge to everyone’s bill.

Apparently this new structure will encourage water conservation and ensure that bills are more accurate. However, the new structure applies the same rate per unit to all users and replaces the declining block rate which gives a lower rate per unit of water for those using very large volumes of water. How does this encourage water conservation? If those who are using a large consumption of water have a lower rate per unit, how does that encourage one to use less water?

So where did all the money go from the rate increases last year? The rate increases last year did not provide better customer service or more accurate billing. The Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose regularly receives calls from city residents similarly complaining about high water bills which DPW is unable to justify. The informal water conference process in place to dispute such bills was a non-judicial process in which evidence was scarce and there was no right to appeal the hearing officer’s determination. This process routinely left homeowners stuck with high bills and without any further way to contest them.

There is clearly a drastic need to reform the DPW and the billing system beyond simply turning quarterly bills into monthly bills. As of now it is unclear how the rate increases are necessary for reform, or what the full scope of the reform will be. According to the Board of Estimates Agenda for July 27, 2016, DPW began testing the new system and started training their employees on its use. However, an employee from St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center recently spoke with individuals in the DPW billing department and customer service department. She asked various questions about the specifics of the new increases and no one could provide any information whatsoever in regards to the increases.

We at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center hope the reforms bring improved accuracy in billing, a meaningful appeals process to contest erroneous billing, and clarity as to how the rate increases help achieve these ends. Our organization deals with water billing regularly, as we provide services for low to moderate income families with housing needs. Many of our clients will be greatly impacted by this massive increase in their water bill because they are already struggling financially. Last year we represented a client for his water bill hearing. He hoped to adjust his water bill because his water meter was replaced five times and still continued to provide faulty readings of his family’s consumption. In the end, with the help of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, the bill was reduced by over two hundred dollars which made a huge difference for our client and his family. However, not all residents are so lucky in challenging extremely high water bills. The city often refuses to adjust their bills leaving struggling homeowners in risk of tax sale.

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center will always provide help or guidance to those struggling with their water bills, but we also provide housing counseling services, affordable rental housing, homesharing services, and legal services relating to housing. Not only will this rate increase affect low to moderate income families, but also the organizations that are trying to help these families secure stable, affordable housing. We understand that sometimes rate increases may be necessary, but the families who bear the burden of these increases deserve transparency and results.

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Summer Learning at St. Ambrose

When summer rolls around, many college kids are eager to be free of commitments and head to the beach. These students, however, wanted to do something more meaningful with their time. Here are four students who are spending their summer interning with St. Ambrose.

Tasayeh Nickens,

Housing Development Intern

Tasayeh goes door-to-door in Belair-Edison, conducting surveys and collecting valuable opinions and impressions from community members about Belair-Edison.

Tasayeh heard about St. Ambrose from a friend who interned here last summer. “She was able to connect me with  Jill, who found me a position.”

DSC_5719She knew St. Ambrose would be the perfect fit. “I did my research about St. Ambrose and found what they really did interesting and very positive things for the community. I really like what they value; rehabbing homes, that’s something I’m really interested in. It really helps people who aren’t as able to purchase homes.”

Her favorite part about her internship is “being able to interact with the people in the community and hearing what they have to say about what’s going on in the city.”

During the school year, Tasayeh attends University of Alabama, where she studies social work. “I plan on becoming a licensed, clinical social worker, and I plan on working at a hospital doing medical social work. I also want to get my masters degree in social work and public health.”

Tasayeh feels that her experience at St. Ambrose is giving her a taste of the social work field “because they’re advocating for the people and the community.”

DSC_5719 (2)Courtney Watkins,

Law Clerk

Courtney works in the Legal Services Department and drafts deeds, conducts crucial legal research, and connects clients to attorneys.

Courtney plans to become a lawyer through her studies at University of Maryland  Francis King Carey School of Law. Because of her interest in housing law, a career development coach directed her to St. Ambrose. I don’t think I could have gotten the same experience elsewhere.”

“I really like that in public interest you have more hands-on work than say, at a big firm where you’re just doing legal research. I really like the experience that I get to be doing the work myself rather than just whispering in an attorney’s ear something that I found online.”

She’s trying to figure out what kind of lawyer she wants to be. “There are still so many avenues I want to explore. That’s why I’m really excited I’ve gotten to try out family law this summer.”

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Karly Horn,
Homesharing Intern

Karly personally follows up with each Homesharing client to ensure their satisfaction and is helping the department go paperless.

She recently spoke with someone who was first matched with their homesharer nearly 15 years ago. They now consider their homesharer “part of the family.” Karly’s favorite part about her work with St. Ambrose is “hearing what the program I’m part of is doing for people.”

At University of Richmond, Karly is majoring in leadership studies and minoring in history. An alumna suggested she intern at St. Ambrose, thinking it would provide her with the perfect experience. Karly structured her own interdisciplinary program for the summer, incorporating 4 internships. “I wanted to see how nonprofits are structured.”

Karly is still trying to determine her career path. “I want to help people, I just don’t know in what capacity yet.”

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Resource Development Intern

Maegan collects stories from clients and staff alike to share for St. Ambrose’s upcoming 50th anniversary.

She connected to St. Ambrose through her summer fellowship, Walter Sondheim Jr. Maryland Nonprofit Leadership Program. “I grew up in Baltimore and have seen firsthand how housing issues can affect members of our community. St. Ambrose drew me in because they do so much to provide homes for people, making our city stronger as a whole.”

“I love that every day I hear firsthand stories from clients whose lives have been changed by the amazing people at St. Ambrose.”

Maegan hopes to serve in the Peace Corps after graduation. She knows that she wants to dedicate her life to public service, but is unsure what direction it will take her. “I know that whatever I do, I’ll always look back at this summer and think about the valuable skills I learned here at St. Ambrose.”

 

Talking Homeownership with Pam Petty

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June in National Homeownership Month! To commemorate the occasion we sat down with Homeownership Counselor Pamela Petty to learn about the role she plays to help her clients become happy Homeowners. Pam has been a St. Ambrose Homeownership Counselor for 19 years.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
The folks! I love seeing their faces when they come in and realize that they can buy sooner than they originally anticipated. I love helping my clients understand what funding is available to help them reach their goal of homeownership.
A lot of times my clients come in with a lot of nerves about the home buying process. Being able to explain the process to them helps to settle their nerves and relieve some stress about buying a home. When I’m able to show them that they have more control over the process and the partners they choose to work with, I can see them becoming more relaxed. I love seeing my clients walk out the door with more confidence and settled nerves about the home buying process.
What’s the most common misconception that your clients have?

Sometimes people come in thinking they can afford more house than is realistic for their income. Another misconception is that many people don’t understand the importance of good credit.

What’s your vision for a better Homeownership department:
I think a standard counseling certificate for the whole state would better serve many of our clients. You don’t always know where you’ll find your perfect home. It would be helpful if the counseling certificate was universal for the whole state rather than being separate for each jurisdiction.
It’s great that we offer eHome America to allow clients to complete their homeownership workshop online. I think we need to continue to use technology to serve our clients better and make our counseling program unique.
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Pam with her client, Leslie H., after their one-on-one homeownership counseling session.
What is National Homeownership Month? Here’s an excerpt from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Press Release:

WASHINGTON – This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) kicks off National Homeownership Month by recognizing how homeownership enhances lives and contributes to thriving communities we call home. “Dare to Own the Dream” is the theme of this month-long recognition, reinforcing the long-held belief that owning a home remains one of the cornerstones of the American Dream. Read President Obama’s National Homeownership Month message. 

When President Obama took office nearly eight years ago, the nation’s housing market was in free-fall, unemployment was rising and many families were left feeling trapped and anxious about their mortgages. He immediately took action to address these issues and to protect the middle class. The steps he took helped millions of Americans stay in their homes, save money on their mortgages and turn their communities around.

“Homeownership Month is a good time to reflect on the progress the Obama Administration has made to ensure that owning a home is always within the grasp of the average American family. A home is the place where we raise our children, establish roots in a community and plan our future,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro. “The opportunity to be a homeowner should be open to those ready and able to buy a home.  As the housing market continues its recovery we must ensure that responsible homeowners have access to credit to make their dreams of homeownership a reality.”

Interested in learning more about Homeownership Counseling at St. Ambrose?  Visit the website to explore your options.

Homesharing Spotlight: Ed and Ousmane

Ed and Ousmane are Home sharers in the Mayfield neighborhood, a cozy community of detached homes nestled between Lake Montebello, Herring Run and Clifton Parks. Ed, who’s been sharing his home through St. Ambrose since 2011, is a longtime advocate of shared housing.  For Ed, it’s a healthy stimulator to live in community with others, and some of what it takes to be a good roommate is a mindset of compatibility and a willingness to communicate openly.

Ousmane, who joined our community of Home sharers in February 2016 is blind, and was referred to St. Ambrose through a job readiness training program. When he graduated from his job training program, he was able to swiftly transition to Homesharing, perfectly matching with Ed.

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“One Step at a Time”

From his new home, Ousmane waits at the corner to catch the bus to his work south of downtown Baltimore. On his return trip, he takes the bus to one block north of his home in order to cross at the controlled cross walk. When he reaches the cross walk, he listens for the cycle of traffic to stop to know when to cross the street. He knows the timing of the lights by memory, and always waits for a complete cycle to pass through before he ventures across the street, white walking stick leading the way.

Sometimes a neighbor will offer him guidance to walk across the way, and Ousmane always graciously accepts, “it’s part of their spirituality” to offer assistance, but each day for Ousmane, crossing the street is another opportunity to practice and learn. Another walk across the street is another step towards the independent lifestyle he enjoyed before he lost his sight four years ago.

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Ousmane, who is originally from Senegal, moved to the US in 1996. When he went blind in 2012, he had a lot to learn on his path to living independently again. For Ousmane, Homesharing is an experience in the “School of Life” and a way to live self-sufficiently, while in community with others. “It’s a daily self-assignment and a challenge to make sure I’m acting correctly and on the same page with others… I can always improve myself and my communication.” Ousmane wakes up around 5 am each morning to get ready for work. He moves silently about the house, taking great care with every step. Ed describes Ousmane’s movement as “ninja-like,” but for Ousmane, a heightened sense of hearing makes him very mindful of moving quietly at an early hour.

Adaptations- making the house a home for Ousmane

When Ousmane first moved in he carried around raised bump locator stickers and received assistance to mark buttons and switches around the house for guidance. There’s a dot to identify the start button on the laundry machine and three dots on the microwave to identify the number 3, the start, and the clear button. Another practical adaptation is a paper bag to place his mail. Ousmane has an app on his phone that he uses to scan and read text when he shops for food, reads mail, or checks paper money.

It didn’t take much to make Ousmane feel comfortable in his new home. One final adaptation that’s in the works-“Well, we’ll need to expand the garden,” Ed mentions. Ousmane is a vegetarian and the backyard garden is certainly a point of community pride and unity at the shared Mayfield home.

What is the best part about Homesharing?

For Ousmane, he finds that he is at peace in his new home,”living in sync with good people inspires me to be my best self.”

For Ed, Homesharing stretches his comparability and comfort zone, and “it’s a way to act locally and build bridges in the community.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Interested in Homesharing? Call 410-366-6180.

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A front porch garden that appeals to all the senses

Karen Heyward-West named one of Maryland’s Top 100 women

Karen Heyward-West, Director of Homesharing, was recently recognized by the Daily Record as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women for 2016. The highly accomplished list of honorees includes leaders across sectors and communities. St. Ambrose gives a warm congratulations to all of this year’s nominees. Below is an interview with our own award recipient, Karen Heyward-West.

 

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Karen at the Awards Reception, April 18, 2016, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
One of the categories for an honoree is being recognized for mentorship. What is your advice to young women who are interested in being leaders in the the non-profit or human services field? 

 The first thing I always say is you have to check in with yourself often to make sure it’s still your passion. Whether you’re advocating for the environment, for young people, or for families, you always have to ask yourself: Are you passionate about what you’re doing?

As one of Maryland’s top 100 women, you’re in good company! On the list of fellow nominees, who is someone you really respect and why? 

There are so many! On the present list, I’d have to say my sorority sister Sharonne Bonardi, Deputy Comptroller of the state of Maryland. Shes’ the first African American to hold the position and her story about how she moved up the ranks in the Department is really inspiring. Working in such a male dominated field and being the first African American in her position, she faced so many challenges, but she really committed to her job, not for herself, but for the women who came after her. As a public servant it’s not about you, and I really admire her commitment to being a leader for women in her field.

Of previous nominees, I would say Margaret Williams, of The Maryland Family Network. She’s been out there for more than 30 years fighting the fight to support young families, and she’s grown the network from just a few centers to many.
In your opinion, what makes Homesharing such a great program for the community?
I think because it’s unique and obtainable. There are not several hoops to jump through or waiting lists to get on- there’s a beginning, middle, and end all in the near future. We’ve placed people in a week, we’ve place people in 3 days. It’s an obtainable solution to the lack of affordable housing. It’s real.
What is the best part about being the Director of Homesharing?
The best part of this position is being a part of change. This position allows me to effect change in people’s lives and spread the good news about the outcomes of the program. Homesharing really is the best kept secret, but I get to help share what Homesharing can do for an individual and for a community.

Financial Coaching Workshops come to North Barclay Green

North Barclay Green Community Center at 2001 N Barclay is a community space provided through Neighborhood Partners and Telesis and is open daily to connect neighbors to resources, provide programming for all ages and interests, and work to make Barclay a great neighborhood to call home.

St. Ambrose offered a one day financial education workshop in February at the center and was invited to host a four week financial coaching workshop series this spring. We sat down with the center’s community organizer Tarahn Harris to catch up on what’s going on at the North Barclay Green Center and to get his perspective on financial education in the neighborhood. Tarahn works with Ms. Lottie Snead to bring programming and resources to Barclay residents.

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So, how do financial coaching services contribute to the overall vision for moving the community forward?

Neighborhood Partners has 7 core values to support the neighborhood, one of those values is financial empowerment.

The workshops provide information that’s accessible that can help residents see new options for themselves and envision a different future. Neighborhood residents can see that even if they don’t have the job they want right now, they can still set goals- and that’s the impact and the importance of financial education for the neighborhood.

What was the response from neighborhood residents about the financial workshop?

There’s been a lot of good feedback, and I think community members are just grateful to be exposed to the information. The workshop is presented in a way that is super engaging, which makes it easier for the residents to embrace the information. What’s really great is that St. Ambrose is accessible to the community so that physical barrier is gone. It’s important to connect people to resources that they can walk to.

What impressed you about the Financial Education workshop this winter?

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Denitra Braham, St. Ambrose Financial Coach, answers a participant’s question at the February workshop

It’s refreshing to have the information presented in a way that is fun! There was such a wealth of information and the way it’s presented is accessible and engaging.The question and answer section was really helpful and participants at the workshop were made very comfortable, even with a subject that’s usually sensitive.

What other services are offered at the center and through its partners?

Community round tables about nutrition and diabetes, community gardening, help for returning citizens, job readiness support, youth programs like a bike club, Monday night cooking classes with a local chef… and more!

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With a background in social work, community organizing, and family counseling, Tarahn serves Barclay with a  breadth of knowledge on how to have a positive impact on other people. He’s hitting the pavement to make sure Barclay residents are connected to the resources they need- no matter how big or small. As Tarahn wisely noted, “Communities thrive through partnerships,” and we’re happy to have Tarahn and the crew at North Barclay Green to be out there connecting neighbors to resources and providing a great community space for the Barclay neighborhood.