BALTIMORE - The spirit of St. Elizabeth Convent continues in Clare Court. A 30-unit affordable housing development, Clare Court serves families adopting children from the local foster care system, persons with disabilities, and seniors.

It’s a fitting use for a building that was originally constructed in 1917 as a convent and orphanage. The facility later became a school for the developmentally disabled. By 1999, the school had closed. The nuns, who were declining in number, wanted to continue to live on the site and use the property to serve others, but they could not afford its upkeep.

Their prayers were answered with the help of Homes for America (HfA), a Maryland-based nonprofit housing corporation, which converted the old convent into Clare Court, a community of affordable apartments and townhomes. Along with Communities of Care, another nonprofit involved in the early stages, HfA worked closely with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi on the $7 million project. Clare Court was selected as the top historic rehabilitation/preservation project by Affordable Housing Finance readers.

An innovative collaboration was needed for the complicated project, which involved both a significant rehab effort and a partial sale, said Trudy McFall, chairwoman of HfA.

Under the arrangement, the sisters kept one wing of the 50,000-square-foot building’s first floor, where they created a 10-unit assisted-living facility for some of the elderly nuns. They also kept ownership of the chapel, kitchen, dining area, and common space, as well as the majority of the 10-acre site.

The balance of the building was sold to HfA for $250,000 through a condominium arrangement. The organization created one- and two-bedroom apartments and four-bedroom townhouses, all of which offer Sec. 8 rent vouchers. Twenty-two of the units are reserved for tenants earning up to 40 percent of the area median income (AMI), and eight are reserved for those earning up to 50 percent of the AMI. Because some of the residents are families that are adopting multiple siblings, the project has come full circle from its early days as an orphanage. While the frail nuns make their home on their own wing, a dozen other sisters live in the main Clare Court apartments.

Creating community

The nuns are continuing their ministry by being active in the community and serving low-income families. The original sisters came to Baltimore from England to care for African-American orphans. For many years, the park-like property was home to about 300 children and 40 sisters.

In addition to meeting income restrictions, the new residents must provide service to others in the development. “We wanted people to engage in the community,” McFall said. “We wanted it to be an intergenerational community.”

Residents are meeting the service requirement by assisting in the community center, participating in story hour for the children, or volunteering in the development’s library.

“Everyone looks out for everyone,” said resident Molene Martin, a former school teacher who has adopted her four nieces.

During a recent summer camp, three of the sisters came out to help in reading, math, and other activities, she said. All the residents have gotten to know one another through different events and meetings. “It’s like a big family,” Martin said.

An 8,000-square-foot stone building on the property that was built in the 1880s serves as an activity center for family and children programs. HfA has a long-term lease for the building.

Lessons learned

Financing included $2.5 million in low-income housing tax credit equity from Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., a $1.4 million Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development loan, an $850,000 city of Baltimore HOME loan, and a $200,000 Affordable Housing Program grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta through SunTrust Bank. The Maryland Affordable Housing Trust provided a $100,000 grant for predevelopment purposes.

Clare Court is seen as a model for other convents and churches that are looking to adapt their facilities for other uses. There are many examples of properties that have been sold to create affordable housing, but Clare Court shows how a religious community can continue to use its site while sharing it with others.

McFall and her team, however, had to wade through several complicated challenges. One involved the targeting of specific populations. HfA had to satisfy federal, state, and local regulations in order to select adopting foster families and persons with disabilities.

Another issue that surfaced involved the religious symbols, including a cross and a stained glass window, that are on the property. They are important to the sisters, but there was some concern about maintaining a separation of church and state. A resolution was reached that the symbols would not be used as part of religious services.

McFall credits the financiers and other supporters for believing in the development and not giving up when technical issues surfaced. “They really stuck with it,” she said.

The result is an award-winning project and a new intergenerational community. Clare Court was honored as the Best Project in Maryland for 2005 by the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers. It was also named a 2005 Tax Credit Excellence Award Winner for best seniors development by the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition.