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And the real estate bust has struck some working class neighborhoods in Brooklyn especially hard. The number of foreclosures and abandoned properties has soared, but one housing program known as the Nehemiah has amassed a strong record of keeping people in their homes, and it's done so, imagine this, by carefully vetting each and every borrower.
NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: Yvonne Ziegler(ph) was living in an apartment in a housing project when she heard about the Nehemiah Homes. She had a good office job and she made enough to get by. But like a lot of New Yorkers, she figured she'd be renting forever.
Ms. YVONNE ZIEGLER: I didn't have the aspirations that I could afford a house. So when it came to light that these churches were building affordable houses and how low the mortgages were, I thought, well, may be this is something I can aspire to do.
ZARROLI: A few years ago, she made the down payment on a three-bedroom house, where she lives today with her mother. The program that built her house was started in the 1980s by a coalition of Brooklyn churches and synagogues and named for the biblical prophet Nehemiah, who rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Nehemiah is actually credited with rebuilding Jerusalem's walls.]
Bishop David Benke of St. Peter's Lutheran Church says at the time whole blocks of Brooklyn had been wiped out by arson and neglect. But a core of working people remained, and Nehemiah figured that turning them into homeowners would help restore the neighborhood.
Mr. DAVID BENKE (Bishop, St. Peter's Lutheran Church): The idea of Nehemiah was to afford an opportunity for people to own homes in areas of the city that were devastated. And that meant to rebuild them from scratch and that the people who were going to build these homes were going to be the people who had some skin in the game.
ZARROLI: Today, Nehemiah has built more than 4,000 houses on streets like this one. The houses are trim and modest - the words cookie cutter come to mind -but they've provided a bulwark of stability against blight, and that's been especially true lately. Nehemiah officials say a tiny handful, no more than 10 of the houses they've been, have faced foreclosure - this in a part of the city where foreclosures topped 10 percent last year.
The low default rate has much to do with the high hurdles the applicants have to jump over. One recent evening, a handful of Nehemiah homeowners gathered to talk about the program. Zandra Brockman says when she signed up for Nehemiah, she knew nothing about buying a home. The program schooled her in concepts like home equity and amortization.
Ms. ZANDRA BROCKMAN: There were certain guidelines and there were certain tests that we had to take to get us prepared to be a homeowner. Because this is an investment; they didn't just want anybody to come in and you wasn't aware on what you had to do to be a homeowner.
ZARROLI: Nehemiah meticulously vetted the finances of would-be homeowners. Buyers' monthly mortgage payments couldn't exceed about 20 percent of their income. Again, Yvonne Ziegler.
Ms. ZIEGLER: The credit check that I had to go through through Nehemiah was much more extensive than through a regular credit check. They constantly monitored where you got your money from, how long your money was in the bank. If you made a deposit over a thousand dollars, you had to prove where you got it from.
ZARROLI: A lot of people who applied for the program were turned down at first, says Sarah Plowden, but they would come back and try again. They'd clean up their credit records and start saving for a down payment. And Plowden says as often as not they would reapply and get accepted.
Ms. PLOWDEN: I was really proud to know that so many of our people had worked to make sure that they were legitimate. You know, as they say, I can put my name on my credit history, I can put my name on this document and nothing won't come up later on me. So, a lot of things came on. We more than just bought homes; we bought into one another as a people.
ZARROLI: Plowden says over the years some people have chafed at the restrictions that Nehemiah imposes. Because of the tough credit and income standards, a lot of low-income people can't qualify. But Alyssa Katz, author of the book "Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us," says Nehemiah has also made homeownership possible for a lot of people who could not otherwise afford it.
She says that's partly because Nehemiah built homes on land abandoned to the city, so it could price houses very cheaply.
Ms. ALYSSA KATZ (Author, "Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us"): Look at what it actually did. It brought the entry price into homeownership down to a level that working people could afford in a very, very expensive city, where people who make modest incomes invariably rent.
ZARROLI: Then too, the restrictions that the program imposes on applicants have to be put in context. The kind of thorough vetting that Nehemiah puts applicants through used to be standard procedure. The mortgage market changed but Nehemiah never did, and that's why it's escaped the subprime crisis largely unscathed.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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