Nonprofit plans to rehab 500 city homes

A North Carolina nonprofit group launched an ambitious affordable housing program Friday to rehabilitate 500 vacant or foreclosed homes in Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital — an area with desolate stretches in the shadow of the world-renowned institution that the city has long sought to redevelop.

Builders of Hope and its partners announced plans to invest up to $50 million in Baltimore and Atlanta in a pilot program to repopulate blighted neighborhoods. The group expects to acquire and begin renovating 500 properties in each city into affordable and energy-efficient homes over the next year and a half.

Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker, played a key role in bringing the initiative to Baltimore, said Nancy Welsh, founder and CEO of Builders of Hope. Lewis serves as vice chairman of the United Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit that leverages professional athletes' celebrity status to improve communities and has partnered with the Raleigh, N.C.-based group.

Lewis personally picked his team's hometown, which has about 16,000 vacant buildings, as one of the cities for the pilot "Bring it Home" rehab projects.

Builders of Hope is seeking a neighborhood with "a good density of vacant, blighted housing all within a certain block radius so we can really have an impact on the community there," Welsh said.

The group will work with the city's less than two-year-old Vacants to Value program as well as other programs and has begun collaborating with the city's housing agency to find a neighborhood where work could start almost immediately.

The nonprofit said it has secured a $100 million venture fund investment for its rehabbing efforts, up to $30 million of which is earmarked for the Baltimore and Atlanta projects. The investor, who has made a five-year commitment, has asked to remain anonymous, Welsh said.

The group is working to raise an additional $15 million to $20 million for the initiative and expects to invest about an equal amount in each city.

Lewis is expected to help promote the program and raise additional funds. He was in New York on Friday helping to promote the Bring It Home initiative and was unavailable for comment.

Founded in 2006, Builders of Hope has completed 500 homes and expects to finish 1,500 by the end of the year in North Carolina, Atlanta, Florida, New Orleans, and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.

The group works to find solutions for urban housing problems such as a shortage of affordable rentals, a surplus of foreclosed houses, and neighborhoods that have declined as houses are abandoned. By drawing residents back, the group hopes to help spur additional investment, stabilize housing prices and increase safety.

In most areas, "the real challenge is continuing momentum," said Lew Schulman, executive director of Builders of Hope. "Without momentum, you don't get past the tipping point. We know this is a long-term program."

In Baltimore, the group's second partner is Consumer Education Services Inc., a nonprofit that offers counseling on debt management, housing and bankruptcy, and which will help residents who move into the renovated housing with money-management skills.

Builders of Hope wants a distressed neighborhood near Hopkins because the hospital provides a strong employer as a neighborhood anchor, public transit is available and extensive redevelopment projects are already under way nearby, Welsh said.

Just north of Hopkins in the Middle East neighborhood, nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. is leading an effort to transform 80 acres that had contained mostly vacant rowhouses into a mixed-use area of new and rehabbed homes, offices, shops, a hotel and a new school.

"We want to promote homeownership, and in doing so, you want to go into a neighborhood that has some positive trends going on," Welsh said. "With the building and redevelopment going on around the hospital, that makes that neighborhood more desirable."

Hopkins, a partner in the EBDI redevelopment, encourages its workers to live in the neighborhoods near their workplace and offers grants toward home purchase closing costs for neighborhoods in East Baltimore and near Hopkins' Homewood and Bayview campuses.

"This announcement from Builders of Hope is right in line with what we're trying to do in revitalizing neighborhoods around our campuses," said Ian Reynolds, director of worklife and community programs at Hopkins.

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the effort could provide a hefty boost to the Vacants to Value program, a six-pronged approach to reducing the blight caused by property abandonment and disinvestment.

"It is very exciting to see an announcement of this significance and could really help the mayor achieve her goal of growing the city by 10,000 families over the next decade," said Ryan O'Doherty, Rawlings-Blake's spokesman.

Baltimore housing officials said Friday that their work with Builders of Hope is in the preliminary stages.

Housing officials said they expected the nonprofit to work closely with one Vacants to Value program, in which city-owned homes are evaluated and promoted for sale to investors and home buyers.

"There's a lot of inventory in Baltimore," Welsh said.

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