IN THE RUGGED AUTO TOWN of Elyria, Ohio, even houses have wheels.
Ever since Evelyn France was named president of a low-income housing corporation formed by Elyria Savings and Trust National Bank in 1991, town residents have watched two-story houses inch their way down West Avenue on flatbed trucks.
Last summer, Ms. France engineered the rescue of five houses slated for demolition. They were not only renovated, but also hoisted atop the trucks and move more than three miles to a low-income neighborhood so poor families could have a roof over their heads.
Now, she's working to save six more, and possibly as many as 14 more houses.
"You've got to rebuild from the bottom up," said the 41-year-old Ms. France, who heads community reinvestment for the bank and is president of Community Housing Cooperative, a nonprofit corporation. "I see things that need to be done."
Ms. France's effort to help Elyria, a blue-collar city of 57,000 with 7.7% unemployment, is unique. But it is an example of the work some community banks are doing to rebuild their communities.
So far, examiners haven't given the bank Community Reinvestment Act credit for its work because the program got off the ground during its last exam. But officials say moving houses is more important than getting a good CRA grade.
"Lorain County is a county that needs some help," said C. Donald Bramley, president and chief executive of the profitable $465 million-asset bank. "Evelyn sells this bank in more ways than just CRA."
Experience as a Loan Officer
A native of Elyria, Ms. France decided to help house low-income people while she was working as a loan officer with the bank. Customers didn't want traditional home loans, but kept asking her for affordable home loans.
At that time, the Elyria United Methodist Home was expanding its facility and planned to tear down five large houses. She persuaded Mr. Bramley, a trustee of the home, to see if United Methodist officials would donate the houses. A deal was struck, but many people doubted she could pull off the move.
Hauling houses over bridges, railroad tracks, and under telephone wires is a tricky business. But at a meeting, she got city officials to donate vacant lots for the houses, movers to transport the houses, the police to use free time to block traffic, and electrical engineers to take down power lines.
Politicians Had an Incentive
"Timing is everything," Ms. France said. "It was an election year for the councilmen as well as for the mayor."
Ms. France also rounded up a committee made up of six members of the community to interview applicants who wanted to live in the houses. More than 200 people applied. To qualify, the families' income could not exceed 80% of the median income established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most of them made about $20,000 a year.
The bank counseled the families on resolving credit problems. It also charged them $370 a month to rent the houses, and agreed that after 18 months of payments, the funds would be used as a down payment. The bank also agreed to provide 20-year mortgages at a 7.5% rate. The houses sell for about $40,000.
"We hope this will be long term," Ms. France said. "I really love this community."