Belair-Edison: Fighting for a neighborhood for 'the middle'

Constant intervention has saved Belair-Edison. Its continued success matters to all of Baltimore.

Marguerite Gallup can see it in her mind's eye: her three children racing Big Wheels in the alley behind their red brick rowhouse, her husband at work at the nearby steel mill. She'd be in the small but serviceable kitchen where she made the family dinner every night.

Baltimore's Belair-Edison neighborhood was an idyllic place to raise a family, says Gallup, 68. But that was decades ago, and the alley behind their old Ravenwood Avenue home shows signs of decline today: rusted fences, a tattered basketball net, backyards filled with clutter.

In the 25 years since the Gallups — and hundreds like them — left for the suburbs, teams of activists have fought to defend the working-class Northeast Baltimore community against the forces that have pummeled it and others: blockbusting and white flight, predatory lending and foreclosures, a loss of blue-collar jobs, and crime.

Belair-Edison has fared better than many neighborhoods, thanks to repeated intervention by nonprofits and government, which have spent at least $15 million in the past decade or so to rejuvenate and market its housing stock. They have used creative measures to keep it a neighborhood mostly of homeowners, and one where the average Baltimore family can still afford to buy.

A place like Belair-Edison, neither wealthy nor impoverished, is "vital to the overall health and future of the city," says David Sann, a longtime neighborhood advocate with the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

To grow and be strong, Sann says, Baltimore needs neighborhoods that offer affordable housing opportunities to working- and middle-class families — people like the Gallups, who in buying their homes invest in the community, in more ways than one.

Belair-Edison saw home ownership rates of at least 80 percent for decades. Those rates have slipped since the year 2000, but at about 65 percent are still higher than the citywide average.

Today in Belair-Edison, you can buy a sturdy three-bedroom brick house with yards in the front and back for about $120,000. A fairly strong stream of people — teachers, police officers, health care workers — continue to do just that.

Whether the neighborhood can hold on is of great consequence not just to the people who live there, but to Baltimore.

A city "can't just be the top and the bottom," Sann says. "The middle has to survive and thrive. Otherwise, the city will fail."

The decline

The trouble was years in the making.

First came the loss of good-paying jobs at General Motors and Bethlehem Steel, then white flight triggered by blockbusting: Real estate speculators persuaded white homeowners to sell low, only to turn around and resell the properties, often to black families, at inflated prices. In the 1990s, the neighborhood transitioned from majority white to majority black.

As time passed and original homeowners died, investors targeted their heirs by dotting neighborhood intersections with "We pay cash for houses" signs. Some of the financiers cut the checks, rented the homes and let them fall into disrepair — causing entire blocks to slide.

In other cases, some families who saw their home values skyrocket by $100,000 during the housing bubble refinanced so they could draw cash out. But the loan terms were untenable, and backlash from the Great Recession continues. Short sales and foreclosures accounted for 57 percent of home sales in Belair-Edison last year, down from 61 percent in 2013.

With the decline has come a few boarded-up storefronts on Erdman Avenue and Belair Road, and more crime. And while the crime rate in the city's Northeast neighborhoods remains lower, per capita, than elsewhere in Baltimore, some highly publicized crimes have sullied outsiders' perceptions of Belair-Edison.

In September 2012, Peter Marvit, a National Institutes of Health researcher, was fatally shot near the front door of his Chesterfield Avenue home as he was returning from choir practice. Authorities say he had parked near the home of a witness to a series of robberies.

Chong Wan Yim, a delivery driver, was shot in the chest in June 2011 after dropping off soda and bottled water at a liquor store in the Erdman Shopping Center. Yim was killed by a convicted serial robber.

Not all of the neighborhood's crime is so sensational. Thomas Neubauer, 76, was mugged two years ago while taking a walk on a Sunday afternoon. His glasses are still bent. He was robbed once before, on his way to Mass in 1997, and his home has been broken into twice.

But Neubauer, a retired economic analyst for the state, is committed to the neighborhood where he's lived since 1941.

"I am going to stay here if I live to be 100," he says.

Advocates say they realized long ago that if Belair-Edison was to keep residents like Neubauer — and attract new ones — they needed to devise a plan of action.

"When I think of this community, if one word had to come to mind, it is 'survivor,'" says Johnette Richardson, who runs Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that promotes the area.

"This is a surviving community," Richardson says. "I don't know too many other communities that have been hit, just beaten down by predatory practices, and yet we manage to emerge.

"You just want to fight and fight and fight for this neighborhood."

The intervention

The intervention began in earnest some 30 years ago, when too many houses were hitting the market at the same time.

Belair-Edison's 6,700 homes were built in two waves before and after World War II. By the 1980s, many of the original homeowners from the postwar phase were getting older. They had raised their families and were making lifestyle changes. Some moved to nursing homes or left the city. Others died.

The Gallups, who bought their house about 1965, left the city around the time Joe Gallup retired from Bethlehem Steel as a general foreman. Their three kids were grown, many of their family members had moved to Baltimore County, and they wanted more space.

"We were saying we wanted a bigger yard, a bigger house, one that sat by itself," Marguerite Gallup says from a floral love seat inside their Rosedale tri-level, which is surrounded by green.

In 1990, they sold their house in Belair-Edison to a young family for $64,000.

Other houses that hit the market around that time weren't move-in-ready.

Some owned by elderly couples were outdated and in need of repairs. Speculators were ready to step in, and they were willing to pay cash. They sometimes used fear to pressure owners or their heirs to sell quickly, claiming the houses would lose value if they didn't act.

St. Ambrose and other nonprofits had an alternative plan:

They would buy the houses themselves, fix them up, and be patient while a first-time home buyer got a mortgage. Better still, they would help the buyer get that mortgage.

St. Ambrose hand-picks homes to renovate using money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and other sources. Of the roughly $15 million that government and nonprofits have spent in the neighborhood in the past decade or so, more than $12 million has gone to renovations, including costly work to rid the old homes of dangerous lead paint.

Sann says the group "over-improves" the houses with upgrades like granite countertops and landscaped front yards, which helps push up the value of surrounding homes as well. As a finishing touch, St. Ambrose hangs red doors — the group's signature — on front entryways.

"The person who buys your house gets a good house at fair-market value," Sann says. "But the real client is the rest of the neighborhood."

Sann says the strategy helped stop a free fall of home values in the neighborhood about five years ago, when the housing market crash began to take a serious toll on home prices.

Home values in Belair-Edison were stagnant until the early 2000s, when a good house sold for $70,000. By 2008, the same house sold for $130,000 or so, dropping after the crash to about $100,000.

Prices have rebounded now to about $120,000 for nice homes. You pay closer to $140,000 to live in the area that borders Herring Run Park.

Once homes are ready for sale, St. Ambrose and groups with names like Healthy Neighborhoods work to market the improved properties, find new homeowners and foster bonds between neighbors. The groups have spent at least $3 million toward such efforts as marketing the properties, counseling buyers and helping with closing costs.

Among the measures of success, advocates say, is that the population in Belair-Edison has remained steady even as other city neighborhoods have been abandoned. Today, about 17,000 live in the neighborhood's one square mile — the same as in 1980.

Teams of people are working to give families a reason to move to Belair-Edison, and to stay.

Belair-Edison Neighborhoods organizes movies in the park on summer nights and back-to-school haircuts at the community's many salons and barber shops.

Richardson says the group also tries to support self-help efforts, printing fliers for neighborhood cleanups and working to convert people who call with complaints into block captains. (Someone willing to pick up the phone and complain, she says, likely isn't afraid to knock on a neighbor's door and ask for a hand in a community beautification project.)

Other tactics include enrolling neighbors in the group's Resident Leadership Academy and working with nearby Morgan State University to encourage faculty and staff to move to Belair-Edison and become involved in the community. Richardson's staff is planning a second beer and wine festival after the inaugural event last October brought 700 people to Herring Run Park.

Richardson's group also hands out small grants to residents to fix up their blocks. Homeowners near Parkside Drive and Belair Road, for instance, got about $10,000 to install lamp posts in their front yards.

The lamps help keep the street well-lit at night — and, Richardson says, send a message that Belair-Edison families look out for one another.

The promise

George Johnson III didn't know anything about Belair-Edison when a bus took him through the neighborhood by chance. He and his wife, Anita, had wanted to take a home ownership tour of Charles Village and Ednor Gardens, but they missed it.

As their bus drove down Chesterfield Avenue, the couple noticed the blooming magnolias and sycamores and the towering pines that line Herring Run Park. Across the street from the park, they spotted an empty house.

"It was a wreck, but I liked it," says Johnson, 49, an English teacher at the city's Achievement Academy, an alternative high school. "There was something about it that felt like me."

As the Johnsons looked into buying the place, they got advice from Belair-Edison Neighborhoods. They made a successful bid on the foreclosed house at auction and bought it for $30,000 in 2003. The group helped the couple learn about the federal Good Neighbor Next Door program, through which teachers and civic workers can buy houses in certain areas at discounted rates.

The Johnsons also learned about a loan program to help them renovate the three-bedroom house. They borrowed $70,000.

With YouTube videos for instruction, the couple pulled out the kitchen cabinets, replaced the lighting, sanded floors, patched a big hole in a bedroom ceiling, ripped apart the bathroom and installed skylights.

All the work — their own and that of the neighborhood groups — has given the Johnsons just what they wanted: a comfortable home on a good street where they can raise their children, George IV, 14, Gabriel, 11, and Grace, 9.

The kids play soccer on Herring Run's fields, gather pine cones from the park for their Christmas decorations and ride their bikes on neighborhood streets. And George Johnson is president of the community association.

But will they stay? Johnson thinks for a second, then says it depends on whether the neighborhood remains what he needs it to be.

"I can't promise," he says.

Ettare P. Stokes, a financial aid adviser at Morgan State University, says she plans on sticking around for a while.

Stokes paid $105,000 for her new home on Juneway in December — and collected $7,000 toward closing costs from various incentives, including Morgan State's Live Near Your Work program.

The convenient location was important to her. "Everything you need is within a one-mile radius — the market, the gas station. If my car was to break down, the bus stop. It's 21/2 miles from my job. My gym is right up the street."

Stokes says she feels more of a sense of community in Belair-Edison than she did in the other places she's lived in Baltimore. And she's not worried about the occasional troublemaker.

"The more of us that come," Stokes says, "the less of them that will be here."

The challenge

The people waging the fight for Belair-Edison know they can't be complacent if they are to hold at bay the forces that can bring down an urban neighborhood.

In particular, they say, they must be vigilant in their efforts to prevent crime and to encourage redevelopment of vacant businesses.

The latest intervention is about to get underway.

St. Ambrose will spend a half-million dollars over the next 18 months to buy as many as 10 blighted houses, hire another community organizer to train block leaders, and finance a marketing campaign to attract homebuyers.

Some of the money will go to fix up the heart of the Belair Road business district by power-washing sidewalks and adding trash cans, park benches and signs promoting the neighborhood.

Standing on a corner near Herring Run Park, City Councilman Brandon Scott points out the tidy brick house where his old schoolteacher still lives. Over in the park, some guy is illegally riding a dirt bike.

"Belair-Edison, to me, is a microcosm of Baltimore City," Scott says. "You can be on a block like this," he says, gesturing to his teacher's house. "And then go two blocks over, and it's a different story. It just depends on the people in that location."

Scott knows how quickly progress in a neighborhood can be lost.

"Healthy neighborhoods make a vibrant city," Scott says. "That's why it's so important that we uplift those neighborhoods, those middle-ground neighborhoods filled with hardworking people.

"We've seen dozens of neighborhoods go by the wayside. We don't want that for Belair-Edison."

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