by Stephen Kiehl for The Baltimore Sun

December 8, 2007

On Broadway, on the eastern edge of the Oliver community, a line of boarded-up homes stands testament to years of neglect. The exposed wood on one is charred, the remnants of a long-ago fire never cleaned up.

"These are such nice homes, and they've been left to rot," said Rob English, lead organizer for the social action group BUILD, which is targeting the East Baltimore neighborhood for a major renewal campaign. "The blight in Oliver has been created by 35 years of disinvestment."

That ends today.

This afternoon, BUILD is announcing it has raised nearly $10 million to acquire land in Oliver. Mayor Sheila Dixon will announce the city is transferring 155 properties to BUILD, which will either rehab the homes or tear them down and build new ones, then sell them to moderate-income homebuyers.

Through creative financing, BUILD will leverage its $10 million into $120 million to be used in Oliver and East Baltimore. The group says scores of homes will be built every year for the next decade, adding homeowners who will care for their property and reducing the vacancy and drug activity that have overtaken a once-middle-class community.

Last week, demolition was completed on a half-dozen vacant homes on East Preston Street, across from Memorial Baptist Church. In February, ground will be broken on the new homes that will rise on that land. The new homes will sell for about $139,000, and rehabbed homes for about $99,000.

BUILD's goal is to eliminate blight throughout Oliver, where 44 percent of properties are vacant. But first the group is focusing on a six-square-block area close to Johns Hopkins Hospital and the new biotech park being built by East Baltimore Development Inc.

The 155 properties BUILD is acquiring from the city, for about $1 million, are all in those six square blocks. Tamara Jones-Douglas, 27, plans to buy one of those new homes. A lifelong resident of Oliver, she has watched the neighborhood deteriorate.

"People were doing drugs and shooting up in those [vacant] houses," she said. "If you live on a block where all the houses are empty, you're going to have people who throw their trash on the street. No one else cares how it looks. Why should they?"

But now Jones-Douglas, who works at the Cherry Hill branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and is studying at Coppin State University to be a teacher, says it's a "blessing" so much money will be invested in her neighborhood. She's never wanted to live anywhere else.

"It's my neighborhood," she said. "I'm not going to let anybody run me from where I live."

Experts say there's a sizable market for quality homes in Oliver, a neighborhood of tree-lined streets and historic churches. The nearby $1.8 billion EBDI development will add up to 8,000 new jobs, as well as commercial space and 2,200 residential units.

"We're putting in place a plan, but more importantly, a sense of a positive future that is encouraging others to invest around us," said Jack Shannon, president and CEO of EBDI. He says the renewal of neighborhoods around his project is critical to its success.

About 70 percent of the homes that EBDI acquired for its 88-acre campus were vacant - a blight that poses health and safety problems but also tears at the fabric of a community.

"Blight not only ravages neighborhoods, it ravages the spirits of people," said Bishop Douglas I. Miles of the Koinonia Baptist Church. Miles, who lives in Rosedale, is now among many who are considering returning to East Baltimore after moving to the suburbs.

"It's tens of thousands of people who would like to live in or near Oliver," said Sean Closkey, president of TRF Development Partners, which is handling the financing for the BUILD project. "The problem isn't demand. A part of the problem is supply. People are living in the best units that are available."

TRF, a nonprofit organization, specializes in finding financing for projects in neighborhoods that for-profit developers won't touch. In East Baltimore - where 7,000 of the 16,500 properties are vacant - TRF is also working on acquiring land and abandoned homes for BUILD.

"We've ceded that part of the landscape to charity and said the only time you do something here is if you want to feel good about helping the poor," Closkey said, summarizing the view of developers. "Well, that doesn't really help the poor. There's dignity in buying something, and you respect the dignity of the person by saying, 'I'm going to treat you like everybody else.'"

The effort to rebuild Oliver gained momentum after a 2002 firebombing killed seven members of the Dawson family, who had fought drug dealers in the area. The city committed to tearing down more vacant homes, and church congregations raised more than $1 million to acquire properties and make good use of them.

But it's a sign of the slow march of progress that it's taken five years for BUILD to assemble the properties and begin construction. Andrew Frank, deputy mayor of Baltimore, said the city is working to streamline that process, so neighborhoods can more quickly gain control of vacant houses and turn then around.

"Throughout the city, a key of any development strategy is to control the vacant properties and assemble them and put them in the hands of people like TRF and BUILD, and to do that sooner rather than later," Frank said.

Dixon's announcement of the property transfer will come at BUILD's 30th anniversary celebration today at Memorial Baptist. During those years, BUILD has created hundreds of affordable homes and a network of after-school programs. But members describe the Oliver project as its most significant work.

"We don't build homes. We help to build communities," said English, the BUILD organizer, as he surveyed Oliver on Friday. "For the last 30 years, we've tilled the soil. Now we're going to plant the seeds."

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