With her blue jeans, boots and red cap with Jesus embroidered on the front, Irene Mabry doesn't look much like most people's image of a fairy godmother. But for hundreds of residents of Baltimore's low-income neighborhoods, Mabry has worked some real-life magic. Time after time during her five years as a Realtor, the 49-year-old grandmother has helped clients who considered themselves too poor to even think about buying a house—i.e., single mothers, and retirees on fixed incomes—find and finance their modest slice of the American Dream.
"If I had a hundred like her, we could turn this city around," says Daniel P. Henson, director of Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, who is on the front lines of the city's battle against drugs, crime and hopelessness. Developer Paul Bryant concurs. "Most Realtors want it handed to them pretty easy. If people don't qualify at first, then they go on to the next buyer," says Bryant, who enlisted Mabry's aid to move homes he had rehabbed in tough West Baltimore. "Irene doesn't do that. She gets involved in counseling."
Though Mabry has done well by doing good, moving more than $1 million worth of homes each year, she regards real estate less as a business than a calling. "God is sending me people that need my help," says Mabry, a Baptist who has been known to pray with clients before beginning the day's house hunt. "With me and where I came from, I can relate to them and tell them the truth." She will go to extraordinary lengths to make a deal work for her clients, most of whom earn between $9,000 and $20,000 a year. Aside from routinely passing up her own commission, she will go to a client's creditors, bargain down debts and set up a repayment plan, even find government funding to pay closing costs.
Mabry's concern for her customers comes from personal experience. The second of seven children born in a Norfolk, Va., housing project to a nurse and a father who worked at jobs ranging from cleaning to construction, Mabry thought the hard times were over when she married an Army sergeant in 1969. But after the marriage broke up in 1982, she and daughters Cassandra and Ebony, now 29 and 24, were forced to live in a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter for six months. "I didn't tell anyone in my family because I was embarrassed," says Mabry. "I always felt the husband-and-wife thing has got to work."
For Mabry it eventually did, with second husband Bobby Moses. A father of two, he was a long-distance trucker when the couple married in 1987. But after a back injury forced him off the road, he got his own real estate license to help his wife part-time. The strapping South Carolina native also tries to keep an eye on Mabry as she navigates Baltimore's most violent neighborhoods to get to her clients. "Sometimes I go, 'Forget these people. I don't want you down there,' " says Moses, 47. "But someone's got to help them."
More often than not that someone is Mabry, whose commitment seems to strike a chord with just about everyone she meets. After five years she has built a network of nonprofit agencies as well as sympathetic developers and lenders such as Deborah McIver, an assistant vice president of Columbia National Mortgage Corp., who handles most of her loans. Mabry and McIver, 40, start by drawing up a game plan for clients that includes encouraging them to pay off their debts before beginning the search and finding ways they can cut down on their spending.
In the case of Kimberly Johnson, 29—a $7-an-hour office temp who had been trying desperately to move her mother and two children, 10 and 4, out of their rodent-infested apartment on a block thick with drug-dealing—a breakthrough was Mabry and McIver's discovery that an $80 bill Johnson had already paid had been red-flagging her credit. Eventually, Mabry was able to convince the developer to pay closing costs himself, and in August, Johnson and her family moved into a $47,000 row house for just $100 down. "She pushed in every direction—she touched everyone," says a grateful Johnson. "That's a blessing from God when I first met her."
Mabry couldn't agree more. "It's very important I don't take all the credit," she says. Then, looking skyward, Mabry adds, "You've got to be a fool to not know who is doing this stuff."
Charles Cohen in Baltimore
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine