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‘We’re just getting started’: Amid Johnston Square changes, ‘affordable’ rental building opens in East Baltimore

City and state officials gathered beneath a large, white tent Thursday to mark the official opening of the Greenmount & Chase apartment building, a piece of a broader effort to revitalize East Baltimore’s Johnston Square neighborhood.

All 60 units in the $16.6 million building — a mix of one-, two- and three-bedrooms apartments — are being priced at 60% under the area median income, according to ReBUILD Metro, one of the project’s developers. It replaces dozens of vacant or abandoned homes and barren lots in Johnston Square, a community being infused with cash in an effort to rehabilitate it with new housing, parks and recreation sites.

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“We need more buildings like this around in the community and everywhere in Baltimore,” said Jerel Holder, a new resident of Greenmount & Chase. “Not just in West Baltimore, East Baltimore, South Baltimore, but all around.”

As one of the first steps in Johnston Square’s transformation, the 60 “affordable” units in Greenmount & Chase will ultimately do little to allay a widespread shortage of low-cost housing in the city. The Baltimore public housing authority is not accepting applications for its waitlist, a spokesperson said Thursday. And because the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically driven up the cost of materials, construction and homes, developers and builders have little incentive to pursue more affordable housing projects.

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Still, officials and Johnston Square community leaders celebrated the opening of the Greenmount & Chase building, touting it as a key to the holistic transformation of a neighborhood.

“For every story that we hear of vacancy and blight in Baltimore, and about the slow churn of progress, let me just say, this is an example of what progress in Baltimore looks like,” said Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott during the remarks. “We know we can, must and will do more. We’re just getting started.”

Scott said the building strategically sits next to a bus line, allowing residents to commute to jobs. He said housing, employment and access to transportation are hallmarks of stable communities.

Johnston Square Partners, a team composed of the neighborhood’s community association, redevelopment groups and the local Catholic high school, have been working to usher in investments for the area just east of the Jones Falls Expressway and south of Greenmount Cemetery. The city has purchased hundreds of vacant lots and buildings for the effort.

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Nearby, other projects such as the Perkins, Somerset and Oldtown redevelopment are taking shape, in an effort to better connect downtown and the harbor to the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

Residents of the neighborhoods looked on Thursday with mixed emotions as city officials visited, photographed and toured the building.

A group of three women sat and chatted as the ribbon-cutting ceremony took place across the street. One of them picked up an application for residency but was told there was a waiting list.

While they appreciated the new money and attention flowing into their neighborhood, they said they had concerns about displacement. The small park they sat in, marked by a “No Shoot Zone” sign, may get redeveloped, they said. If that happened, they said they weren’t sure where they would gather instead or how far away a new park might be located.

“Give something back to the neighborhood,” said Darlene Hearn, a resident of Johnston Square for decades. “Say, ‘I know you all are here, we’ll build something around you. We’ll give this back to you all because you all have been here longer than we have.’”

Regina Hammond, the unofficial "mayor" of Johnston Square (as executive director of the Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization), stands to the left of Mayor Brandon Scott to cut the ribbon.
Regina Hammond, the unofficial "mayor" of Johnston Square (as executive director of the Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization), stands to the left of Mayor Brandon Scott to cut the ribbon. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Regina Hammond, executive director of the Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization, pledged during her remarks to safeguard the interests of those who call Johnston Square home.

“I want you to know, you’re not going anywhere. You’re not going to be put out. You’re not going to be out-taxed,” Hammond, a resident and homeowner since 1984, said. “You’re not going to be out-priced.”

Hammond has spent years working to build a community association with a focus on acquiring resources for the area and is described as the “unofficial mayor” of Johnston Square.

She said Greenmount & Chase fulfills an important piece in a “magnificent mile” she hopes to create, with more housing, amenities and employment opportunities for residents.

Partners for apartment building include the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Rental Housing Works, National Housing Trust Fund and Project C.O.R.E. (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise). Baltimore’s ReBUILD Metro development company teamed with Ingerman, a developer of multifamily communities.

City Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents East Baltimore in the city’s 12th District, said officials would continue to work to reverse harmful policies that caused blight and underinvestment in some neighborhoods.

“We got to go back and redo what we did. We did it. We’ve got to change it,” Stokes, a Democrat, said. “We’ve got a great building. But if we don’t take care of the people in this community, we’re going to have the same problems we got going on now.”

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