Compared to those areas, Sissman said, Johnston Square is "a much tougher place."

Asked if he can point to any comparable undertakings in Baltimore, Graziano said the city has successfully conveyed numerous Reservoir Hill houses to developers who then revamped them. And assistant commissioner Peter Engel said the HOPE VI projects, which transformed public housing projects into new neighborhoods, showed that "if you do something at scale and focus the resources, you really can turn something around."

"And I guess," Graziano added, "the question is, what's the alternative? Do we just sit here and let these neighborhoods further decline, decline, decline? We've got to do it in a strategic way that says we get that critical mass."

'Give them a chance'

Walter Jones has lived in Johnston Square since 1956. Now in his 70s, he owns the same rowhouse on Valley Street that his family moved into when he was 21. Back then, there were only two other black families in what had been an all-white area.

Jones chairs the nonprofit Johnston Square Community Development Corp., which has worked with Mi Casa, keeping area residents apprised of the progress and construction job opportunities.

Jones thinks his neighborhood, adjacent to the sprawling city jail complex, has too long been denied a piece of the redevelopment "pie," as funds have gone to places like Sandtown-Winchester, Homestead-Montebello, Fells Point and Hollins Market.

Mary Ross, the organization's director, has lived in the neighborhood since around 1970. By then the galloping white flight had flipped the racial composition to mostly African-American. It was still a solid working-class community, she says, still years from the decline so evident today. According to the 2010 Census, 25 percent of houses in Johnston Square are vacant, compared to 16 percent citywide.

The millions of dollars in housing investment won't be wasted, she says. "Watching the decay the last 20 years, I would agree it's costly," she said. "But it's badly needed. I think in the end the results will be good for the overall city."

Despite the woes, a sense of community endures, she says, and crime has dipped. Baltimore police figures show that robberies, aggravated assaults and drug arrests were down last year compared to 2005, although burglaries rose.

Elin Zurbrigg, Mi Casa's deputy director, said her group sees potential where private developers may not. She hopes to begin work on the first for-sale houses later this summer.

"It's an area where people live and work and go to school," she said. "There are people who are homeowners in the community, or who are renters who do care about the community and care about the future of the community and want to see it thrive."

Zurbrigg pointed to Johnston Square Manor, a 1980s townhouse development directly across Preston from the vacant houses Mi Casa plans to restore. Of its 50-plus houses, four out of five are owner-occupied, with assessed values around $90,000, property records show. The 30 for-sale houses on Preston will build on that "cornerstone" of ownership, she says.

As Graziano put it, "Frankly we're protecting the investments of these folks who have stuck it out."

Phyllis Smith, a retiree, has stuck it out for 25 years. Every time she steps onto Preston, she's greeted by a grim tableau of boarded-up houses owned by the housing authority. "Of course it depresses your own property," she said.

Hugh Good, a 63-year-old retired railroad worker, doesn't own his house in the 700 block of Biddle, a block south of Preston, but he acts like he does. Last week, he and a friend donned thick gardening gloves and cleaned up trash-strewn, city-owned lots at Biddle and Homewood Avenue.

An area resident for 15 years, Good describes his neighbors as "beautiful" people badly in need of better housing. One Formstone-clad house on Biddle has sat empty for years, he says, its roof long gone. And nearby a woman and her children had to move out of another house after rats moved in.

"What's wrong with making housing for people to live in so they don't have to worry about rats, roaches and all that mess?" he said. "Give them a chance. This is the United States. Make something decent for everybody."

Still, Good was amazed to hear the average rehab cost on Preston will be $300,000.

"That don't make no sense," he said. "You can go out to the county and buy you a house. Why don't they do that? That's the government, ain't it? Not their money."