Trucks rumbled noisily past Velma Wright's rowhouse on Annapolis Road, drowning out conversation as she sat on her porch in the afternoon heat. Her block in Westport is scarred with boarded-up homes. Discarded junk fills overgrown backyards. Across the busy street, the little candy and hardware shops shut their doors long ago.
Yet Wright's narrow house, just blocks from an industrial waterfront, is a hot property.
With Baltimore home values soaring and developers eyeing Westport's shoreline for glitzy new development, investors have come calling on homeowners in struggling neighborhoods along the Middle Branch.
They send letters, call on the phone or knock on the door with typically vague offers that dangle hope for unexpected financial gain.
But community leaders are countering with pitches of their own, cautioning homeowners not to sell. Amid an unprecedented real estate boom that is remaking other city neighborhoods, the issue isn't whether redevelopment is desirable, but who will profit.
They worry that hard-pressed homeowners who have endured decades of decline will sell out too quickly, leaving big profits for others to reap.
Offers ranging up to $60,000 can look tempting in a neighborhood such as Westport where prices have fallen to an average $45,679 in the first quarter of this year and where many homes sell for less, according to data compiled by the nonprofit LiveBaltimore.
"Some people will take that, thinking that's a lot of money," said Linda Towe, executive director of Project Toour (Teaching Our Own Understanding and Responsibility), an umbrella group that includes Westport and neighboring Lakeland and Mount Winans.
"But because the housing market is what it is, that's nothing."
And they worry that homeowners who do sell will be left with limited housing options in a rapidly appreciating market.
'Don't sell your house'
"We've been getting the word out: Don't sell your house," said Ruth Sherrill, president of the Westport Improvement Association, who said she has received 15 or 20 offers for her Waterview Avenue house over the past two years.
"Where are you going to go but in the same neighborhood or worse?"
Charles S. Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit agency that develops and manages for-sale and rental housing in the city, said homeowners in neighborhoods such as Westport are used to being pressured by abandonment and falling values, not gentrification.
As of 2000, more than 22 percent of the houses in Westport had been abandoned, according to the city Department of Planning.
"The danger in a reviving neighborhood is that ignorant homeowners can lose the opportunity to gain the profit of a reviving neighborhood. There are an awful lot of blue-collar families who have their life savings in their house, and this is their chance to build wealth," he said.
Trying to hold on
Wright and her disabled husband feel the lure of offers in the $50,000 to $60,000 range - far more than they paid in 1981. The couple struggles some months to pay the gas and electric bill.
"I'm going to try to hold on as long as I can," she said.
When phone calls from investors come to William E. Davidson, a retired trucking company worker whose parents bought his Annapolis Road rowhouse in the 1960s for $1,600, "We cut them off quick. We're not interested in anything they have to talk about.
"When I say, 'You can have it for $100,000,' it's a joke to them. But I wouldn't sell it for less than $100,000, because where am I going?"
Developers are training their sights on Westport amid insatiable demand for homes on or near the water. Other once-working-class areas of Baltimore such as Canton and Locust Point have already seen old industrial areas transformed by upscale projects at prices their original residents could have never afforded.
"Anyplace where water is now, everyone is jumping through hoops to get a piece of it," said Janette Little, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker. "Any new development will bring value or improve a neighborhood. If it starts on the waterfront, it will extend into the neighborhood."
Now Baltimore city planners are working to create development guidelines in anticipation of a gold rush to develop Westport's waterfront. The 50-acre swath along the Middle Branch waterfront has already been dubbed "Harbor West."
"I think it's going to be one of the best neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore, with proximity to downtown, the water and parks," said Patrick Turner, a Baltimore-based developer.
Turner, of Henrietta Development Corp., envisions transforming the industrial shoreline into a mixed-use development.
His Inner Harbor West LLC bought the former Carr-Lowery glass manufacturing plant on Kloman Street and has a contract on the adjacent 12-acre site of a closed Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. power plant, also on Kloman Street.
No specifics on plans
Many residents welcome Turner's plans - through he hasn't unveiled specifics yet - and see him as an ally in their attempts to improve their neighborhood.
He plans to help the community in a yet-undetermined way in converting several vacant buildings along Annapolis Road into a neighborhood community center.
"He's interested in helping to preserve the Westport neighborhood," Towe said. "He knows what we don't want - not having access to the waterfront and views of the waterfront."
The neighborhoods around the Westport waterfront have long faced some of the tougher urban challenges, including vacancies, housing code violations and the drug trade.
In Westport, the homeownership rate dropped from 33 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2000, while abandoned housing units doubled, according to city planners.
"The vacancy levels and levels of distressed property have been higher in those neighborhoods than perhaps other parts of the city," particularly along the blocks closest to the area's three public housing projects, said Chris Shea, associate deputy director for planning and development for Baltimore Housing.
But in their favor, he said, the neighborhoods have maintained some stability from a core of homeowners who still take pride in their homes.
"As the market strengthens and values rise, then it becomes more and more feasible to increase the owner-occupied housing stock with new products," Shea said.
"That in turn will strengthen the market in surrounding neighborhoods and cause individuals and development companies to be much more interested in putting new housing product in on vacant lots, rehabbing vacant houses and invigorating the housing stock."
But many in the community worry that in the interim, investors will scoop up houses and let them sit, waiting to cash in.
Of 19 houses sold in Westport through April of this year, 16 were purchased by buyers who do not occupy the homes, according to the latest available home sales data from the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation.
Those buyers paid an average $33,242.
"Most of the investors are buying [houses] to hold on to, to make more money, and most are not fixing up the properties," Sherrill said. "Some need to be boarded up and haven't been boarded up. Some are drug havens with trash in the back yards."
Put something back
That's a valid concern, said Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a housing and neighborhood advocacy group.
"There are a lot of houses in the city that need some work and need to be upgraded," Sarbanes said.
"If investors are doing that and upgrading conditions, that's good for a neighborhood. If they're trying to get hold of properties and sit on them and speculate on what will happen in the future and not put anything into it, that's bad. "
Despite the neighborhoods' challenges, residents such as Davidson and Sherrill have resolved to stay. They, too, believe new development will eventually lead to a brighter future.
New development "will bring some income in," Sherrill said. "People would be moving in that would really care and want better school system and better streets.
"It will be better for all the homeowners."