From a window of his family's longtime North Bond Street rowhouse in East Baltimore, Lloyd Williams videotaped the activity on the street. A builder and home remodeler who grew up in the Oliver neighborhood, Williams was shocked by how the area had deteriorated since he left in the early 1990s.
The scene was surreal, he thought, with addicts darting around corners to score drugs. "It was something out of a story, some type of science-fiction story, to see people controlled by drugs so vividly," he said.
Williams, 46, president and CEO of the Verde Group, a Baltimore development company, decided that he wanted to help turn around his old neighborhood, starting with the North Bond Street home his grandfather bought in 1942. Documenting the decay was a starting point, and that's what he set out to do nearly four years ago.
Since then, Williams has helped transform more than 20 vacant and rotting shells, mostly along a two-block stretch of North Bond Street, into energy-efficient homes with granite-appointed kitchens, exposed brick walls and, most important, new homeowners, he says.
The number of empty homes in the city has grown to 16,000, about 4,000 of which are owned by the city, according to Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development. On Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake unveiled an initiative to tackle the problem. The plan, which will make it easier for officials to sell city-owned vacant homes, also will include $1.5 million worth of incentives to attract homebuyers and strengthen code enforcement on vacant properties.
As a builder who has completed close to 50 rehabs across the city, Williams says he is encouraged by the administration's attention and applauds efforts to force absentee landlords to either make repairs or sell homes that could then be resold to private developers. Williams recently talked to The Baltimore Sun about his work in Oliver and his hopes for city neighborhoods struggling with the decades-old problem of vacant houses.
Question: When did you live in Oliver and what was it like growing up?
Answer: I was born here in Oliver in 1964 at Hopkins Hospital. We moved around Oliver and Middle East and lived on Bond Street. I remember we used to be able to walk the streets. You felt safe. You would walk to local playgrounds to play softball and football. Then we moved to the county. We'd come back and visit. Over the years, you could see landlords weren't taking care of properties, homeowners were moving out, trash became an eyesore and blight became a problem in the community.
I came back [to live] in the high school years. … At that point, the neighborhood had changed. There was lots of drug traffic, and it wasn't safe.
Q: What did you think of the depiction of the neighborhood in the HBO drama "The Wire"?
A: I think what "The Wire" has depicted was relatively close to the reality of what people lived here in Oliver. You hear about shootings on the corners. You could clearly see the drug traffic just a few years ago. There were times when people would just start running around the corner and lining up to receive free testers, samples of the drugs that the dealers [were] putting out.
Q: After years of renovating properties in Canton and Fells Point, how did a request from your mother lead you to your work in the Oliver community?
A: My mom received the [North Bond Street] house through my grandmother's will. … She asked me to renovate the home, and I did it. … She fell in love with it and decided she wanted to move back in the house. That was the genesis of my saying, "I need to make this community a safer place." … I started looking around and started purchasing and renovating properties.
Q: Who owned these homes and how much did you pay for them?
A: They were owned either by private owners or … the city. … We bought them for $5,000 to $31,000.
Q: What kind of shape did you find them in?
A: Most of them were 95 percent gut rehabs. The roofs were caved in. The only things salvageable were the front walls.
Q: How have you been able to renovate the houses and sell them at affordable prices?
A: Over the years of renovating homes, I tried my best to figure out best practices to keep the costs down. We would buy material in tremendous bulk and go to auctions and buy materials at tremendous deep discounts and offer subcontractors many houses for better pricing. We'd pass the savings on … to make the houses more attractive to potential buyers. The homes we have in East Baltimore and Bond Street are the same houses you see in Canton and Fells Point. I was in tune to the high-end finishes and high-end amenities that … homeowners wanted.
Q: How many homes have you sold in Oliver?
A: Twelve have sold or settled, and six are under contract, in a range of $145,000 to $200,000.
Q: Who are the new Oliver homeowners?
A: We are attracting buyers from all over, from various demographic groups, [including] people who are degreed professionals. This product has attracted people who are choosing to live in the community that was once featured on "The Wire."
Q: What else needs to be done to stabilize neighborhoods like Oliver?
A: You need to try to find ways to put people back to work — that's one of the cornerstones of our program. We hire from the community
Q: What is your vision for the Oliver neighborhood?
A: On Sunday mornings, you see a lot of cars coming through Oliver … to church. Those same people drive out to the suburbs after church to go back home. People should consider Oliver to come back home. You don't have to take flight anymore.