When Bree Jones was a financial analyst in New York City, her visits home to nearby New Rochelle, New York, distressed her.
Neighborhoods were changing fast, displacing many who had lived there for decades, Jones said. Luxury apartment buildings were popping up where homeowners and renters scraped by. She organized a group of concerned citizens to pressure the developer and the city government to keep some of the buildings’ units affordable, but it was too late.
“We had some small wins, but by and large, the developer was able to steamroll the community,” Jones said. “Other communities like mine across the country, if only you had a head start, you could equitably build affordable housing and keep legacy members in the same neighborhood.”
Jones left her job in 2018 and founded Parity, an economic development company with a goal of creating accessible neighborhoods for aspiring homeowners and long-time residents and a mission statement of “development without displacement.” Now 30, she looked at cities across the country and chose Baltimore as her first market.
Housing was so cheap, available and plentiful in Baltimore, Jones said, that she could buy and rehabilitate properties while keeping costs low and without entering into bidding wars. There’s a strong jobs market, too, she said, a critical factor in making any neighborhood sustainable.
Jones and her team will break ground on the first three homes Saturday in West Baltimore’s Harlem Park, each of which already has a buyer. She has 25 homeowners signed up to make offers on future homes and a waitlist of more than 90 more. Her goal is to renovate 96 homes on 10 contiguous blocks in the neighborhood just west of Martin Luther King Boulevard. And she plans to live there, too.
Parity’s strength, Jones said, lies in the social networks that drive the work forward and hold her accountable. Each neighborhood she redevelops will have an oversight board run by existing residents as well as a “collective,” a mix of those residents and people who hope to buy into the neighborhood. The collective socializes and makes plans for what they want their neighborhood to become.
“We’re creating a stickiness,” Jones said. “So you’re not just buying a house because it’s cheap, but a house where you know everyone on the block.”
Parts of Baltimore already have been subject to the same development pattern as in her hometown. Several neighborhoods have fought so-called urban renewal plans, viewing them as a catalysts of displacement in majority-Black areas. Elsewhere, apartment complexes have replaced blighted and vacant blocks, but some neighbors remain skeptical of what the changes mean for them.
Amanda Morrell, a West Baltimore native who lives on North Carrollton Street in Harlem Park, said she has come to know Jones and trust her. Jones listens and adapts, Morrell said, building connections along the way.
“This community has history of people coming in and telling us what we need, and not necessarily for the betterment of the people who live here,” Morrell said. “I want to see honest investment in this community, not seeking to push people like me and my mother out, or my neighbors who have been here for decades.”
When Jones selected Harlem Park — which sits on the north side of Route 40 across from Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood, where several families have been relocated this year to make way for a sweeping redevelopment project — those familiar “warning signs” of gentrification weren’t yet there, she said.
That’s why she’s moving quickly to have the first three of 10 houses finished by April and is in the final stages of acquiring about 30 more homes.
Jamar Day is poised to buy one of the first homes. A Washington, D.C., resident and Baltimore native, he’s been interested in buying a home for a while, and after hearing Jones’ mission, has “been with her ever since,” he said.
“It’s more personal than just buying a house, it’s generational wealth building,” said Day, a community organizer.
First he looked in Reservoir Hill but had trouble finding an affordable option. The Harlem Park homes are similarly sized and modeled, he said, and will be priced far lower and among neighbors he’s come to know well once renovation is finished.
Another potential buyer is Chizi Igwe, who met Jones a few years ago at a community meeting and appreciated her mission of preventing displacement by gentrification.
“I’m happy to see someone trying to do something in Baltimore, looking the same as the people living in Baltimore,” Igwe said.
The Prince George’s County resident joined the “collective” but remains undecided on whether she’ll buy one of Parity’s Harlem Park homes.
“With this model of, ‘Let’s all go at it together,’ you feel comfortable. You know who you’re living by, and on some level, you have the same perspectives on how a neighborhood should feel,” she said. “The closer I’ve gotten to the message, the more invested I became.”
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Jones said people misrepresent Baltimore as a city people are running away from, not toward. Not true, she said. But the housing stock doesn’t reflect that interest, particularly in historically redlined and neglected neighborhoods.
She’s working on securing grants for legacy residents in Harlem Park to make facade upgrades to their properties. Jones connected with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service and Fight Blight Bmore to help prevent legacy residents, both homeowners and renters, from getting displaced.
She’s also advocated for policy change. She worked with State Sen. Antonio Hayes and Del. Brooke Lierman, both Democrats from Baltimore, on a bill that creates a state fund that nonprofits can apply to that would close the “appraisal gap” — a phenomenon in which construction and rehabilitation costs exceed a home’s sales price — in historically redlined census tracts. That bill passed earlier this year.
Jones said having the “collective” behind her not only shapes her vision for neighborhood, but also helps her keep going when she runs into dead ends. Her savings account from her days in finance dried up fast, she said, and she didn’t let Parity pay her for the first three years.
“My heart is 50 years old if you were to open me up,” Jones said about the stress.
But soon, investors and grant money started flowing her way, including from Baltimore’s Open Society Institute, which selected Jones for a $60,000, 18-month fellowship in 2020. She hopes more city foundations and corporations will see the potential in her idea, too.
“The reality is, to build affordable housing, we need grants, we need donations and we need grants and donations from corporations,” Jones said. “It’s just a matter of fact. So I guess I would say, for corporations who want to see Baltimore become healthy again, this is one way.”