Vacant, boarded-up shops and rowhouses line the street across from the new North Avenue Gateway apartments. A block south on North Rosedale Street, a 6-year-old girl was killed in the crossfire of a 1991 gang shooting.
Yet when new apartments opened formally last month in an area of the city infamous for drugs, vacant homes and the slaying of Tiffany Smith, so many people wanted to live there, property managers had to turn them away.
The developer behind the two four-story buildings in West Baltimore said he is not surprised.
"If we build 100 of these, they would be full," said Kevin Bell, senior vice president for development of the Woda Group, an Ohio-based company that has completed five projects in Baltimore. "There's a tremendous need in Baltimore for … high-quality housing that is affordable to a lot of people who live in this city and who would like to live in this city."
About 60 percent of Baltimore renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and 37 percent spend more than half, according to a September working paper by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy and the John Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies. The expense of renting older, more rundown apartments runs about the same as newer units, but older ones often cost more for utilities, Bell said.
"There are people that come who are turned away from here and are sad they missed the opportunity," said Kelly Stovall, 43, who moved into the apartments about two months ago from East Baltimore in search of a shorter commute to her pharmacy classes at Baltimore City Community College. "Word of mouth travels. … I see that if you had another building there'd still be people trying to get in."
Those involved in the 3000 W. North Ave. project hope that demand for Gateway units also will help build a stronger housing market in the area, which has active churches and is just blocks away from redevelopment occurring around the Coppin State University campus. The Woda Group also plans to build another set of apartments across the street from the North Avenue Gateway development.
"If you go up that way, you will find a stable neighborhood," said Bell of Woda, gesturing north. "If you look this way, it looks like hell… So what are doing? We're just trying to push it down this way."
The 3000 block of West North Ave., located in an area where 20 percent of the housing units are vacant, has been a longtime target for redevelopment. In 2003, city crews razed five homes on the block and for years, members of the North Avenue and Hilton Street Business and Community Task Force tried and failed to find a company willing to build housing there.
"It just didn't happen," said Herman Pittman, the organization's 90-year-old founder, who has headed the task force off and on for about 25 years. He said plans typically fell apart when developers failed to secure the financing.
In 2009, the city, which had bundled most of the block's properties together, asked for proposals to redevelop the area. The Woda Group, one of two companies to submit an offer, received the award in 2010.
The roughly $15 million project, which started construction in July, opened this fall with the help of $10.5 million from the state in federally authorized low-income housing tax credits and roughly $1.9 million in state loans through the Department of Housing and Community Development's rental housing funds program, Bell said.
The city also forgave $1.5 million in items such as back taxes and liens on the properties, he said.
"There are certainly sections of the city where we would not support this type of development because we don't think there is a market yet," said Peter Engel, Baltimore Housing's deputy commissioner for project finance and development. "The fact that it leases up quickly shows that the area does have demand, still does have a market."
Gateway's 64 apartments, which rent for between $500 and $680 per month, are reserved for households with incomes at or below 60 percent of the Baltimore City area median income, or about $36,000 for an individual or $41,100 for two people. At Gateway, which was full within a month and has 95 people on the waiting list, the average income is 45 percent below the median.
Bell said Woda relies on a strong property-management company to maintain the property, located about a mile away from the section of Ruxton Avenue where police indicted nine on drug conspiracy charges in September. Tenants also go through credit and background checks as part of their application.
Stovall, who has an 8-year-old son, said she did her own research, driving to the apartments at night and sitting in her car to see if she felt safe.
"I'm neighborhood conscious," she said. "I took enough inventory to know that this is where I wanted to be."
"All neighborhoods go through change," Stovall added. "I'm going to look at what's going on now. I wasn't here 20 years ago, but I want to see where this is going to go."
Pittman still vividly recalls the night in 1991 when 6-year-old Tiffany was killed. He said the new housing development, complete with a playground, represents a significant improvement from that time. The girl lived in one of the rowhouses that was demolished years ago on the site of the apartments, he said.
"When I went upstairs, I was surprised, because the apartment was so nice and I was thinking, 'This is where she lived,'" he said of the Gateway units.
Pittman said he is pushing for the city to clear a nearby park and include North Avenue in its Main Streets program, which would make the corridor eligible for help, such as micro business loans.
"It definitely helps to grow a healthier community," District 7 city Councilman Nick Mosby said of the apartments, adding that more in the way of jobs and education will be needed to turn the area around. "There are so many positive byproducts when you eliminate blight, but that's not the entire equation. … This project is a great project, but it's really just a drop in the bucket."
Malik Jordan, a Rosemont-Walbrook resident who drafted a community development plan in 2008 and now works for Woda, said he believes the neighborhood is changing, although more work is needed.
"I think as folks become more alert to this community development area you're seeing resident pride and a greater sense of community," he said. "The same way it got here is the same way it's going to leave — incrementally. But you've got to take the first step and this is one giant first step."
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