Valarie Abrams appeared on the cover of the Arkansas Times last March, standing on the empty lot on 21st Street where her new home was to be built, a big smile on her face. The article was about the rise of the Pettaway neighborhood east of Main Street, which had suffered blows from gangs in the 1980s and a tornado in the '90s, thanks to efforts of the Downtown Little Rock Community Development Corporation. Abrams was in line to get her first house, which would also be Little Rock's first home constructed from steel cargo containers, a green idea trending in new construction. She'd signed a contract with the DLRCDC to buy the house a year previously and was anxious to see the house go up.
But a couple of weeks ago, the Bank of America decided not to loan Abrams the money she needs to buy the $120,000 house. It's not because she can't afford it — she's qualified through the Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, which works with Bank of America. It's because, the bank has informed NACA, the home is too "unusual" to accurately appraise.
According to a spokesman in the Little Rock office of NACA, it's the first time Bank of America has declined to finance a home in the NACA program in Little Rock, which began six years ago here.
Not only could Abrams lose out, but redevelopment in Pettaway, where a dozen homes have been built or remodeled over the past few years, could be stalled. "When something like this happens, it throws a wrench in the process," said Scott Grummer, DLRCDC director. The DLRCDC needs to sell the house built for Abrams, at 421 E. 21st St., and the mirror-image container house next door, at 417 E. 21st, to fund its ongoing redevelopment of the neighborhood.
Bank of America has financed mortgages on other new homes in Pettaway, including two that would also be considered unusual — modern one-story homes designed by the University of Arkansas School of Architecture's Design Build program, the first at 1519 Commerce St., a 1,100-square-foot home that sold for $109,000, and the second at 1805 Commerce.
Abrams, 52, an administrative assistant at General Mechanical Contractors, signed a contract with the DLRCDC for the 1,250-square-foot house April 30, 2010. She has jumped through every financial hoop NACA has required, including taking a course in home ownership and having her bank statements scrutinized every month. The three-bedroom, two-bath home has been fitted with a gleaming kitchen from IKEA — including a side-by-side refrigerator — and bamboo flooring. Abrams chose the light fixtures and the Revlon red paint on the living area wall. At her request, the wall was painted with a design that matches the blown-dandelion IKEA light fixture in the kitchen; the room is also lit by cable lights. Constructed of steel and tightly fitted, utility costs in the home aren't expected to top $100 a month. The DLRCDC's Grummer said the agency intentionally builds higher-end houses — those over $100,000 — to lift the neighborhood.
Abrams has prayed over the house. Her teen-aged daughter and the niece she's raising have been eager to move into the house. She started packing her apartment at the first of January.
On Jan. 18, just as she thought everything was taken care of, she got an e-mail from NACA:
"Good Afternoon! After receipt of the third appraisal on this property, Bank of America has declined the loan due to the property being unusual, therefore being unacceptable. Bank of America would be happy to finance another home for you, but it has to be on the acceptable property list. Please advise how I can assist you in moving forward." It was signed by the NACA agent assigned to Abrams. "I am devastated," Abrams, 52, said Wednesday.
The NACA arrangement with Bank of America would have allowed Abrams to use a federal HOME grant administered by the city to buy down the interest on the $120,000 home, reducing it to an affordable .125 percent.
The Bank of the Ozarks has offered to work with the LRCDC to offer Abrams a conventional loan, and would allow her to buy down the principal, but her monthly house payment would increase by about $100. "I can't afford that, and it's not fair," she said. Though the bank seemed to think she could handle the higher monthly payment — about $680 — Abrams laughed and said, "That's the devil's number."
Abrams hasn't given up entirely. The DLRCDC's Grummer has written NACA that he doesn't agree with the Bank of America's stand, and said that FHA loans, for example, do not treat modular homes — which the container house is — differently from stick built. The home "falls in line with everything else we have done, from stick built, to insulated concrete form, to structural insulated panel to stick built modular and now modular container ... all having been financed by Bank of America through NACA." He's provided two additional comparable appraisals in the hope that the bank will reverse its decision.
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