When she bought her three-bedroom row house last July, Deborah Brown said, she felt a sense of accomplishment.
The 46-year-old mother of four had rented for years but embraced the prospect of buying one of nearly 75 houses identified for renewal or rehabbed in Baltimore’s McElderry Park by Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake.
“It’s the best thing,” said Brown, a data entry clerk at Johns Hopkins Hospital, while stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce in her new kitchen in the 2400 block of Jefferson Street.
“I now have a sense of pride. We sleep good at night. I see a difference in the kids.”
The roots put down by Brown and her family are part of a revitalization in a community once spoiled by open-air drug dealing, vacancies, rodent infestation, blight and violence. Today, the rebound is budding with several houses already rehabbed, some by Habitat.
“You can see a real transformation in a very short time period,” said Glenn Ross, president of the McElderry Park Community Association and a longtime resident of the area. “Habitat people work with the city getting sidewalks repaired, the alleys are getting cleaner, there is less rodent infestation, and the drug addicts and alcoholics don’t hang in the area. We see other property owners and investors buying up property and renovating.”
Located about six blocks east of the massive Johns Hopkins Hospital complex, McElderry Park was once a stable working- and middle-class neighborhood.
Today, it is surrounded by other struggling communities, among them Patterson Park, Middle East, the Gay Street corridor and Oliver.
Habitat officials said they targeted the community with the help of $5 million in federal stimulus funds under the Neighborhood Stabilization 2 grant program, which was awarded to the city’s Healthy Neighborhoods nonprofit after a competition in 2010. The grant funds have allowed Habitat officials to mark certain census tracts in a 2-mile radius and identify potential housing for rehabilitation.
“We try to build in bulk,” said Mark Bendann, chief operation officer of Habitat. “We believe that if we can concentrate our efforts on a particular street, what we really are doing is revitalizing an entire neighborhood, one house at a time.”
Bendann said the group works on a block at a time because that helps create a bond of strength in a community, eliminating widespread blight and vacancy with renovated dwellings and new homeowners. The sales prices of the homes range from $110,000 to $150,000.
Even as the $1.8 billion redevelopment of Middle East nearby has stalled in its efforts to provide mixed-income housing, Bendann said Habitat’s work in McElderry Park has produced a sense of momentum there. The group has no plans to work with East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit developer of the 88-acre project, to build new housing at the site, he said.
“We work in a number of communities,” he said. “But the EBDI site is not something we have any plans for now.”
In the meantime, Habitat workers are familiar with certain blocks in East Baltimore they intend to upgrade, based on recent census tracts.
“Everything we purchase is vacant,” said Patrick M. Kirby, director of construction for Habitat, who is working in the McElderry Park community. “We work with cosmetic rehabs, and a larger number of our houses are full-gut rehabs. We have to move everything in a home to make it energy-efficient — but it’s worth it.”
Brown purchased her home for $125,000 under a 30-year interest-free mortgage from Habitat.
The row house has new windows, walls, floors and ceilings, and a new roof. A washer and dryer sit on the first floor. She said the large kitchen was recently filled with family, who gathered over the holidays with covered dishes to share and celebrate her new homestead.
“I feel a sense of ownership, of being able to have something to pass down to my kids,” she said. “An investment.”
Bendann said that is the outcome Habitat officials and volunteers aim for — especially on Jefferson Street.
“Throughout our history, we’ve done well over 30 houses there, and we’ve probably got four or five under construction now and will add another seven next year,” he said. “I think we’re feeling very welcomed.”
The stimulus funds at work in McElderry Park are not limited to that community, said Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods. Other city communities receiving revitalization stimulus money are Patterson Park, Reservoir Hill, Barclay, Old Goucher and Waverly.
“We have three years to spend $26 million through February 2013,” Sissman said. “So far, we have spent more than $13 million.”
Habitat and other housing development companies, he said, are buying properties to renovate, many of them derelict, city-owned, vacant dwellings.
“They range in condition from truly horrible to move-in condition,” Sissman said. “We’re doing our own version of a city homesteading program.”
In certain communities such as McElderry and Patterson Park, Sissman added, Habitat’s goals are starting to be met, thanks to the stimulus funds.
“Habitat’s mission around the country and world is to help very-low-income people buy houses,” he said. “But if you look at who’s been buying in Paterson Park, it’s all investors and flippers. We’re getting them out of the hands of investors and speculators and putting them in the hands of homeowners.”