WASHINGTON – Blanca Calderon’s Silver Spring apartment is small but immaculately kept. The living room has two red sofas and an entertainment center with neatly-stacked DVDs. A narrow hallway leading to three bedrooms and a bathroom also functions as a dining area and kitchen. Besides furniture, the apartment is sparse, and everything is in its place.
It has to be, because seven people live there: Calderon and her husband, Estevan, and their two daughters, Iris, 12, and Emely, 14, as well as Blanca’s nephew, Nestor, his wife, Jasmin, and their daughter, Isis, 1.
Calderon, a 35-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, wouldn’t be living in such a nice, convenient apartment without the OpenDoor Housing Fund, a Silver Spring CDFI that helped the Montgomery Housing Partnership fund the 2008 renovations, keeping quality, low-income housing in the neighborhood.
OpenDoor’s mission is to help finance 5,000 affordable homes, like Calderon’s Nolte Avenue apartment, by 2012 — a goal they are pushing hard to achieve but are slightly behind on, because the recession has made finding capital for these projects more difficult.
“Local government, banks, financial institutions, other organizations…the local government money is not as plentiful as it used to be,” said OpenDoor President Jerry Konohia.
The recession has sent so many organizations into survival mode that they have little extra to spare for community development projects. A national survey of CDFIs at the end of 2009 said nearly half did not have enough capital to keep up with the demand for loans.
Konohia said the area around Nolte Avenue is a good example of an economically and socially diverse neighborhood, because OpenDoor wants to avoid creating “pockets” of poverty.
“If you look in this neighborhood, it’s hard to tell what these people make,” he said, pointing to single-family houses and apartment buildings on neighboring streets.
The location of the buildings is also important because they are in a quiet neighborhood away from the traffic and noise, but still close to the downtown area and to jobs. Calderon works in downtown Silver Spring, doing maintenance for several buildings.
The buildings were renovated not only for the residents’ sake, but to set an example for nearby small-apartment-building owners “to be good landlords and good stewards of their properties,” said Lesia Bullock, the communications and volunteer manager for Montgomery Housing Partnership.
Calderon said through a translator the renovated apartment is much nicer than her previous, unrenovated apartment in the same group of buildings. It has polished hardwood floors, new appliances and fresh paint. The windows are also new and they now have screens.
She let her nephew and his family move in several months ago because rent in their noisy, crowded Los Angeles neighborhood was too high.
“The economic problems (in California)…is why we moved,” said Nestor Calderon, 23. He worked at a Domino’s Pizza restaurant in Los Angeles and is now an assistant manager at the Domino’s on the corner of Piney Branch Road and Flower Avenue, less than a mile away. But he said he wants to get a college degree and become a police officer one day to better provide for his family.
His wife, Jasmin, 22, is finishing an online degree in criminology while she stays home with her 1-year-old daughter. Nestor and Jasmin said they hope to move into one of the neighboring apartments as soon as they are financially stable.
Rent for a three-bedroom apartment is between $1,178 and $1,218, well below ApartmentRatings.com’s market rate of $1,800, and well below Los Angeles’ rate of $2,800.
The recession’s impact on the Calderon family is just one example of the needs CDFIs face. OpenDoor has invested more than $20 million in Washington-metropolitan area neighborhoods in the past 20 years, keeping nearly 5,000 homes affordable for families like the Calderons.
OpenDoor’s $200,000 contribution for renovations came from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Community Legacy Program.
The rest of the money, $2 million total, came from the state government, Montgomery County and an organization called NeighborWorks America. While OpenDoor’s contribution was small, it came at “a very critical time,” said Bullock.
Dawn Medley, director of small business programs for the housing department, said CDFIs are good at working with specific needs, such as affordable housing, or loans for small businesses.
“They are generally very close to the people they lend to,” Medley said “They’re generally in the community, actually existing in the area they are going to service.”
Celester Hall, manager of small business financing for the Department of Business and Economic Development, said Maryland’s CDFIs have a positive effect on communities, regardless of the economic climate.
“I think CDFIs have an impact whether or not there’s a recession, because they tend to target businesses or a sector of the community that has a tough time getting their projects financed privately, during any season,” Hall said.
Ultimately, valuing people by giving them a choice in where to live is the goal, Konohia said.
“What I mean by choice is, people can choose to live in a neighborhood, a place where they can live, work and play, irrespective of what their income or income restrictions are.”