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Belair-Edison anniversary marks crossroads

As advocates of Belair-Edison prepare to celebrate 20 years of a community association dedicated to improving life in the northeast Baltimore neighborhood, the benchmark this week comes at a crossroads.

Amid the recession, officials of Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. have been receiving about 50 calls a week for foreclosure prevention counseling, Director Johnette Richardson said.

Housing values last year dropped 32 percent based on median sales prices, she said. And the area’s vacancy rate of around 10 percent has hampered efforts to stabilize certain blocks as many residents are struggling with unemployment.

“Median sales prices fell from $72,000 in 2009 to $48,750 in 2010,” Richardson said, adding median prices on “target” blocks dropped 23 percent from $99,950 to $56,750.

“With the drop in value, the first thing it does is opens up competition for us” with other city neighborhoods, such as Ednor Gardens, for new homeowners.

Lately, she said, BENI’s staff of eight has worked overtime helping many who live in the community remain in their homes.

“We have clients that we helped two years ago and got a loan modification for, and now they are back because of new hardships,” Richardson said. “That is tough. So if you think about it, we have two housing counselors …  and you think you’ve shaped somebody up but you’re still taking calls from new people every day — and then there’s your old clients. There are not enough hours in the day sometimes.”

To Richardson, Thursday’s birthday celebration for BENI at the elegant, newly renovated Humanim building, formerly the American Brewery, will be a positive time.

The successes of Belair-Edison homeowners will be toasted, and nearly two dozen people — including former directors Gary Gillespie, Tracy Ward and Barbara Aylesworth — will be honored.

Despite the challenges, the organization started in 1991 to promote homeownership has made great strides, she said.

Johnette Richardson

“We’re still that kind of neighborhood where people start their families, or people buy their first homes,” she said.

Located in the city’s northeast, sandwiched between Clifton and Herring Run parks, Belair-Edison has won Main Street and Healthy Neighborhood Initiative competitions, which have brought in grants and other funding to help stabilize the community and attract and retain businesses.

Along the 3400 and 3600 blocks of Belair Road, in the heart of the community, several small startups have thrived.

“I just opened up two weeks ago,” said T.J. Jacks, owner of T.J.’s Barber Shop, where patrons can get a shave and a haircut for $20. “I grew up on the West Side. I moved here because my mother lives nearby. It’s a nice community overall and a good business district. It’s attractive looking, and it’s open.”

Tereza Felicz, owner of Tereza’s Beauty Salon, was setting hair early Monday as a half-dozen patrons sat nearby under hair dryers.

“Business is good,” said Felicz, who came to Baltimore from the Dominican Republic in 2007 and opened her shop three years ago. “It’s a good place to do business because you know people who live near here and there are repeat customers. My husband owns the grocery store next door.”

Mary Ellen Lago, for 26 years co-owner of LaMar Liquors in the 3600 block of Belair Road, tells a different story.

She has had to install a cage around the liquor shelves inside the store and soft drink machines outside the front door to protect her inventory from theft. She once lived nearby, but moved to Perry Hall in Baltimore County after two home invasions.

“After I had a gun to my head, I said, ‘that’s it,’” Lago said. “I don’t know where else to begin.”

Lago described Belair-Edison as a “troubled” community often beset by crime, drug dealing and blight.

“In 1985, it was a nice neighborhood,” she said. “It’s gone downhill now and people don’t take care of properties like they used to. I opened up this morning and someone had dumped furniture in my alley behind the store.

“I’ll be glad when I get away from here, to tell you the truth.”

Lago attributed the woes to an increase in renters over homeowners. That is a reversal of the original mission of BENI, said Ward, the first executive director of BENI after it incorporated, now publisher of Urbanite magazine.

In 1991, Ward said, the community’s rowhouses were populated by working and middle-class homeowners with stay-at-home moms and children who attended area nearby parochial schools like the Shrine of the Little Flower and St. Francis of Assisi.

“What happened is everybody aged out at the same time and you started to have houses that single older women lived in and none of these houses had been fixed up to the modern standards,” Ward said. “What happened then was that property speculators were coming in and buying the houses from senior citizens at well below market price and renting them out to Section 8 tenants. What you had was some real culture clashes and fear.”

Ward and other BENI staffers started homeownership counseling and helped many new families purchase the homes. With the help of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, some properties were purchased, renovated and then sold to low- and moderate-income families.

As the organization grew, the focus spread to business development along the Belair Road and Erdman Avenue corridors surrounding the community.

Richardson said that has helped to stabilize and diversify the community.

Today, dozens of shops like florists, hair salons, jewelers and medical and dental offices line the main roads, alongside a Family Dollar, a Rite Aide, CVS and a branch of Susquehanna Bank.

Side streets are lined with rows of brick houses built in the 1920s that still stand as proof of the community’s allure.

“Looking ahead, what we need to do right now is sell houses,” Richardson said. “Because what we want to do is continue to have this neighborhood be the neighborhood it’s always been, where people wanting to enter the realm of homeownership can enter into it. For me, I feel like that vision remains very strong.”