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New campaign targets D.C. workers who could live in Baltimore

A new ad campaign is targeting Washingtonians who could live in Baltimore.

The advertisement juxtaposes the pictures of two tiny rowhouses, one listed for $669,000, the second for $299,000.

The more expensive one is near Washington's Union Station, and the cheaper one not far from Baltimore's Penn Station — just an hour's train ride away.

The ad campaign by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes city neighborhoods and connects homebuyers with incentives, is part of a larger push to sell Baltimore to Washingtonians. As Washington's job market has heated up, so has its real estate and rental market, pricing out many workers.

"We were just trying to make the argument that the difference of a train ride might be several hundred thousand dollars," said Steve Gondol, executive director of Live Baltimore, which hosted an event Saturday targeting those who could live in southwest Baltimore and commute from the West Baltimore MARC station.

The number of people commuting from Baltimore to D.C. for work remains small but has nearly doubled in recent years, growing from about 3,000 to about 5,940 in the most recent 2009-2013 American Community Survey estimates from the U.S. Census.

While housing costs may be lower, such commuters face trips to and from work than can be up to two hours each way. They must get to the train station in Baltimore, ride an hour to D.C., then get to wherever their office is and back again.

Still, as Baltimore and Washington, which already meet in the middle around Laurel and Fort Meade, are knitting more closely together, some developers are betting on further convergence.

Developer Ernst Valery wants to break ground in a few months on a 103-unit apartment building in Station North. Valery of SA+A Development and Ernst Valery Investments Corp. said he hopes the walkability to Penn Station will make it appealing to people who work in Washington. Those who work in D.C. often have long commutes even if they live in that metro area, he said, so what's another 20 minutes if you can save money?

"I think Baltimore can be a bigger city than D.C., we just need to diversify our economy from just healthcare," he said. "I think it hurts Baltimore to have that single horse. I think more of a connection to D.C. is part of changing that."

Not everyone who can't afford to live in D.C. proper wants to live in the suburbs and many are seeking an urban feel, Valery said.

Baltimore, he said, "has grit. D.C. feels like a Disneyland sometimes."

Developer Eugene Poverni, a principal at Poverni Sheikh Group, who has overseen projects renovating older buildings and rowhouses around Baltimore, said he is working on plans for an 80-unit apartment building near the West Baltimore MARC station.

"Take a look at Brooklyn, take a look at Jersey City," he said, referring to those areas economic booms as a result of their proximity to Manhattan. "We're quite bullish on this metropolitan area, and one of the reasons is the proximity to D.C."

About 505 people relocated to Baltimore from Washington in 2014, about 80 more than the number of people moving the other way, according to IRS data.

While the flows are uneven — and the net gains were higher before the recession, which slowed moves across the country — the trend suggests a slowly increasing number of inbound migrants since 2001, said Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning.

Headcounts by the Maryland Transit Administration, which runs the MARC commuter train service, count more people than the Census did traveling to D.C.

According to MARC data capturing one day on the Penn Line in March 2015, 3,642 people board at Penn Station, another 749 in West Baltimore, 1,315 in Halethorpe, 1,635 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and 2,331 in Odenton, all headed south. Of the 11,410 riders, 10,178 got off the train at Washington's Union Station.

MARC also operates the Camden line, with service departing from a small station beside Camden Yards and ending at Union Station.

"It's modest, but there's an overall upward trend," Goldstein said. "There's a huge difference in housing costs between the District and the city so clearly the strategy is based on a valid economic concept that people will move to places where housing costs are lower if transportation to the place they work is both affordable and convenient."

The median sale price of a home in the Washington region was $410,000 last year, compared to $240,000 in the Baltimore area, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence, a subsidiary of the MRIS multiple list service.

The Maryland Transit Administration raised the cost of MARC train passes last year, from $7 to $8 for a one-way trip from Baltimore to Washington on the Penn or Camden lines, and from $175 to $216 for a monthly pass. But many transit users said the train remains cheaper because parking in D.C. can cost $20 a day, and is more pleasant than sitting in traffic.

Gay Jones has endured a two-hour commute each way from her home in Baltimore County to her job near D.C.'s Dupont Circle for 10 years. Living closer to D.C. was too expensive, and her spouse works in Baltimore, so she stayed.

"You just do it," said Jones, 61.

But she plans to move within walking distance of Penn Station soon to cut her daily commuting time down by an hour, and save money on parking.

"I think people are so tied to their cars," she said. "I like the idea of being able to walk to places. I really want a city environment."

Bif Browning, a Union Square resident and a member of the umbrella neighborhood group Southwest Partnership, estimated that at least half his neighbors commuted into Washington. Union Square and other nearby neighborhoods are a short drive to the West Baltimore MARC station, which has free parking. He said he and some neighbors have talked about opening a teleworking space in the area for all the commuters.

Once he's on the train, Browning said, the commute he makes a few times a week is only 45 minutes, and he often beats in co-workers who live in the Washington area and leave at the same time.

While southwest Baltimore neighborhoods are challenged by crime and trash, Browning said, Baltimore had more of a "real" community feel that encouraged residents to get involved.

"Once people from D.C. come into Baltimore, they fall in love with the difference in lifestyle," he said. "You like to make the money from D.C. but people seem to care about you more here."

Live Baltimore has run ad campaigns to entice Washington residents since this fall using targeted social media and started running print ads in Washington City Paper after MARC began weekend service in 2013.

"Baltimore can be a bedroom community and that's fine, if it means the difference of someone being able to keep a job and being able to stay in the Mid-Atlantic region," Gondol said. "There's no fear that we would be solely a bedroom community, so the more we can grow that the better."

Mike Tamberino, a Harford County resident who travels to Washington a couple of times a month for business, said the push for more Baltimoreans who work in D.C. was indicative of a larger truth about Baltimore's economy.

"I think it means that there's not enough there for Baltimore to stand on its own," said Tamberino, 42, as he waited for a train in Penn Station on a recent day.

Charles Duff, the president of nonprofit developer Jubilee Baltimore who studies architectural history in the city, said concerns about Baltimore becoming a bedroom community for D.C. may be tied to an image of Baltimore in its heyday. But he said that image is romanticized and that any notions of Baltimore's decline are exaggerated.

"As Baltimore and Washington knit more closely together, I think that strengthens all of them," he said. "Baltimoreans used to be afraid it would become Washington's Brooklyn. But if you had been to Brooklyn lately, you would say, 'hey that's nice.'"

Baltimore Sun reporter Natalie Sherman contributed to this report.

cwells@baltsun.com

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