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Signs of change on a blighted East Baltimore block

Gone are the plywood-covered door and windows that never seemed to keep the vacant house sealed very long. Gone too is the gaping hole where the first floor should have been — a dungeonlike pit where police say a 13-year-old girl was raped one night last fall as she walked home.

Now a new porch light hangs from the brick facade, just above a metal mailbox. Inside, the transformation unfolds room by room: Hardwood floors cover a rebuilt first level, cherry-finish cabinets hang in the kitchen, and the three bedrooms and 21/2 bathrooms feel brand-new.

This one-time house of horrors in East Baltimore is on the verge of becoming a home again.

The entire 800 block of N. Caroline St., a short stretch of homes, is abuzz with change. Where eight of its 12 rowhouses stood forlorn and empty late last year, only two show no sign of progress today — and work is expected to begin soon on one of those.

"It's improving, but it still has some heavy lifting," developer Keith French said recently, amid a din of hammering from a nearby government-owned house. French is guardedly optimistic about the block, where he's overhauling four investor-owned vacants, including the one where police say the girl was attacked.

City housing officials say the street illustrates the potential of Vacants to Value, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's program to address Baltimore's inventory of 16,000-plus vacant houses.

"The block has gone from trending in the worst possible direction to trending in the best possible direction," said Michael Braverman, the city's deputy housing commissioner for permits and code enforcement, adding that other blocks in the area "fit this exact same pattern."

Shirley Medley, a retired custodian who has rented a house there for nearly a decade, called the renovations long overdue. She has despaired as homeless people broke into nearby empty houses — in one case setting a fire — and junk-strewn backyards became rat magnets.

"You never know who you're going to get, or what you're going to get," she mused, pondering her future neighbors. "But I know it'll be better than if it's vacant."

City officials see large-scale demolition as the only viable option in some areas of Baltimore, while in others they say it's mainly a matter of getting the stray vacant or two fixed up and reoccupied before the decay spreads. This block of Caroline Street fell somewhere in the middle.

On the upside, the Johns Hopkins medical campus sits just to the south and east, and there are relatively stable neighborhoods nearby. On the downside, most of the block was vacant, including several houses owned by the government. A piecemeal approach wouldn't work, Braverman said.

"The goal is to ensure whole-block outcomes," he said, and a key to that is minimizing a private developer's concern that fresh investment will be enveloped by surrounding blight.

On Caroline Street, a critical step was for the city to put four publicly owned vacants into the hands of a single developer, said Julie Day, deputy commissioner for land resources. French has branded the four houses as part of a larger rehab project he oversees called Eager Square, so named because many of the homes are a few blocks away on Eager Street.

French says he's spending $80,000 to $100,000 to rehab each house on Caroline, all of it from private investors. The plan is to market the houses as "workforce housing," with prices in the $150,000 to $180,000 range.

Though compact like many Baltimore rowhouses, the houses have granite counters, plush carpeting and central air-conditioning. "This is not some slapped-together, rental-quality property," he said.

Yellow signs hang from the second-floor facades of the houses he is restoring on Caroline. One boasts of the granite counters and hardwood floors. "Own this home for as little as $1,000 down," says another. Still another advertises the availability of a five-year tax credit.

The last sign says buyers can qualify for up to $24,000 in grant money. That includes $10,000 through Vacants to Value for down payment and closing costs.

French said it's important for the entire block to be refurbished. "You don't want to put money into a block and have one [house] in the middle that won't get developed," he said. To that end, he plans to begin fixing up a fifth vacant house soon.

That still leaves three other vacants. Two are being renovated by the city's public housing agency for tenants with disabilities. The city has filed papers to put the third into receivership, a legal process that can be used to get an abandoned house auctioned off to a developer who wants to rehab it.

Medley hopes the changes result in a safer atmosphere. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren frequently visit, but she does not feel comfortable letting the younger children outside.

She is looking forward to the trial of Alvin Ray Wright, the man charged with raping the teenager in the vacant house on Oct. 17. His trial was to have begun late last month, but the defense asked for a postponement. It's now scheduled for Aug. 31.

Wright, 49, was charged with the rape after investigators made a DNA match. He is accused of punching the girl in the face and ribs, according to court papers. Doctors who treated her noted she had a loose tooth and bruises on her legs and knees in addition to injuries related to the alleged sexual assault.

Wright's lawyer, Garland Sanderson, said, "We're anticipating the trial, and we look forward to defending the case in court."

After the girl managed to escape from the basement by stacking items to reach the ground floor, she ran up to Medley's 23-year-old granddaughter on the street and asked for help.

Medley still sees the girl sometimes and says she's "a very nice young lady." Still, Medley worries about her self-esteem. When the girl looks at the ground while speaking, Medley tells her to keep her head up.

Despite the block's visible improvements, the girl makes a point of crossing to the far side of Caroline Street so she doesn't have to walk past the house. "Even in the daylight, with people out, she doesn't do that," Medley said.

scalvert@baltsun.com

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