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A push to remake Oliver’s image

Freshly planted spring flowers and a large “Welcome Johns Hopkins Employees” sign at the corner of North Bond and Hoffman streets is a novel sight in Oliver, for decades one of the city’s most troubled and blighted neighborhoods on the east side.

Come Home Baltimore is marketing the rehabbed houses on the 1400 block of North Bond Street to employees of the nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But it sums up the approach by a group of developers that recently banded together to try and restart homeownership initiatives amid the decayed community made infamous for its drug dealing and violent crime in real life and on “The Wire.”

The newly renovated homes are selling for up to $220,000 and add to an aggressive push to try and remake Oliver’s image.

Under the company name Come Home Baltimore, the group is reaching out to Hopkins employees eligible for a $17,000 cash grant as part of a live near your work program. Carrolton Bank has been the leading mortgage provider in the community so far, said George L. Peters Jr., a member of Come Home Baltimore, and St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center has provided homeownership counseling.

“This is a holistic approach,” Peters said. “We want to buy into social change, to buy into the new Baltimore.”

With the Hopkins incentive, and extra incentives from the city through its Vacant to Value program that could include $10,000 cash at closing and tax breaks for a decade, the houses are an attractive package to potential homeowners who want to take a chance in a community that is still struggling.

Come Home Baltimore, which also includes David Borinsky, Karim Harried, Earl Johnson, W. Dennis Gilligan and Kris Thompson, has sold six renovated rowhouses, with another scheduled to close this month.

“We have just opened this sales center,” said Gilligan, standing inside a newly renovated row home at the corner of North Bond and Hoffman. “And we are hoping to be in this sales center for two to four years. In five years, all the units vacant now will be occupied with new homeowners. We’re seeing more doors being opened to new faces.”

The houses being targeted and rehabbed have been gutted and restored with shiny hardwood floors, wall-to-wall carpeting, recessed lighting, tiled bathrooms, gourmet kitchens and landscaped backyards with eight-foot privacy fences among the amenities.

In the 1400 block of North Bond Street, nearly a dozen homes stand out as targets of the Come Home Baltimore program, either already rehabbed or blighted and awaiting a buyer and renovation. The group has purchased most of the vacant shells at auction for about $17,000 each.

“All homes are of historical significance,” Gilligan said of the properties that have traditional Baltimore marble front steps. “Some are 12 feet wide, some are 16 feet wide. Each one is different.”

Borinsky said the company is dedicated to breathing new life into the besieged community and has invested $3 million so far. Another home renovation effort, led by the local grassroots group BUILD, is also underway in Oliver.

“We are committed utterly and passionately to no displacement of existing residents,” Borinsky said. “We want to add to the quality of life of the existing families.”

Some in the community are skeptical of that approach.

Nina Harper, executive director of the Oliver Community Association, said her group feels disconnected to the effort.

“I know who they are,” Harper said. “They have big plans but they are not including the community association. We have plans, too.”

Harper said the community association is in the middle of drafting a new master plan for Oliver, a process she said the developers have not participated in. And the association has planned to sponsor a mural in Oliver depicting famous former residents and landmarks including jazz legend Billie Holiday, former Mayor Clarence H. “Du” Burns, the Apollo Theatre and St. Francis Xavier Church, the nation’s first African-American Catholic church at 1501 E. Oliver St.

A new mural sponsored by Come Home Baltimore near the 1400 block of North Bond Street was painted without the community association’s input, Harper said.

“They did a mural that has no significance to what the [community] is,” Harper said. “All I asked them to do is before you do something like that, call on us. Don’t just throw something up there. I was upset. We want to tell a story and be able to bring people on tours of the community and see the story of the neighborhood.”

Gilligan said Come Home Baltimore has sent a representative to Oliver’s community meetings in order to better work with the neighborhood leaders. He said the group also plans to organize literacy boot camps for area youth as well as tutoring and mentoring programs.

“We have made contact and we are trying to work with the existing association,” he said. “I imagine the neighborhood has heard this story before, so from my perspective, I was hoping our successes in bringing new people back in the neighborhood would win over the community.

“I suspect there’s some suspicion … that we are out there profiteering. But we’re here till we run out of houses to build and or they get too expensive to purchase.”

A group of military veterans under the leadership of 10-year Army veteran Earl L. Johnson is helping to organize community action groups. Johnson is executive director of the Come Home Baltimore Foundation, which aims to work in Oliver to help homeowners connect with city services.

“Being able to coordinate with other nonprofits, the city and the police is something new in East Baltimore,” Johnson said. “The short-term goal is to increase police activity and decrease crime, to make Oliver a cleaner community. Cleaner and safer.”

That spirit is evident in the regular new neighbor cookouts that are held by the developers to welcome families to the community just after move-in day. The latest one was held on May 5 for the Williams family, which recently moved onto the 1400 block of North Bond Street.

“We’re really selling community,” Peters said. “We buy abandoned houses and we are trying to make sure we get people the value.”