The building on Gay Street in East Baltimore isn’t so much a house as a Formstone-covered facade propped up by wooden supports. But by next spring it will be an all new three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath showpiece occupied by a woman who grew up there.
The home is part of an immense and controversial redevelopment project near Johns Hopkins Hospital launched 15 years ago. It was designed to turn a downtrodden part of the city into a thriving biotech hub filled with Hopkins-affiliated workers and students -- but also a mixed-income community that included former residents who wished to return.
Suzane Roberts, 71, is among those who plan to move back — in her case, into that Gay Street rowhouse her grandparents once owned.
“They’re bringing people back to the neighborhood, the kind of people who knew their neighbors, people who cared about other people,” said Roberts, who moved two decades ago to Pennsylvania to take a job as a paralegal.
“Hopefully the dream turns to reality,” she said.
Officials say the return of homeowners marks a long-awaited turning point for the $1.8 billion redevelopment project that sparked intense resentment among the 740 families displaced to make way for it. But it remains uncertain how many of Roberts’ former neighbors will return to resettle in Middle East, now called Eager Park.
East Baltimore Development Inc., a quasi-governmental organization formed with the help of Johns Hopkins to develop the 88-acre property, paid to move neighbors elsewhere and always promised a path back. But the project languished for years in a poor economy.
Advocates and observers say the long delay sowed further distrust, frayed social ties and raised questions about how many of those directly affected would benefit from the revitalization. So far, just one in 10 displaced residents has returned or plans to, and fewer than a quarter have expressed interest.
Lawrence Brown, an associate professor in Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy, called the mass displacement of so many residents “deplorable” for the way it disrupted lives and destroyed a community.
EBDI officials counter that many of the area’s dwellings were unoccupied and a lot of the remaining residents were relieved to move away from the blight and crime. A survey found 85 percent of displaced residents said they were better off after being relocated, according to EBDI. To accommodate those who wanted to come back to the refurbished community, and to serve other low-income residents, the project was required to make a third of the new housing “affordable” to rent or buy. Various aid has been offered to the displaced.
Roberts will join about 35 families that have moved back and another 40 that never left, using resettlement money to instead renovate their rowhomes and stay. A total of 174 have indicated an interest in returning, according to EBDI.
To quickly spur more development of affordable housing, EBDI sold Roberts’ block and two others to ReBuild Metro, an established nonprofit builder that uses public and private funding to sell the homes for $179,900. The group is renovating 26 rowhouses and has already renovated more than 140 others to rent.
Saunie Tubman, ReBuild’s director of real estate sales and homeownership, said the group is looking for homebuyers among its own tenants, as well as from displaced residents tracked by EBDI. She said those residents can tap support from EBDI and federal housing subsidies if they qualify. The group also offers a “pathway to homeownership” program that provides education, help to improve credit scores and other aid.
“The goal is to empower tenants for homeownership,” Tubman said. “There are opportunities for low-income, even displaced residents, to return to the neighborhood.”
Meanwhile, EBDI officials have been working on other projects inside the footprint, a triangle just north of the Hopkins medical campus and east of N. Broadway. About 60 percent of the property is now developed with research space, a hotel, a state lab, retail shops, student housing, a park, a school and market-rate housing, said Cheryl Washington, EBDI president and CEO.
A half dozen projects are underway, including more residences and a grocery store. Of about 1,600 planned residential units, 476 are built, including 273 that meet the government’s definitions of affordable. EBDI said homeowners can earn up to 80 percent of the area median income to qualify and renters can earn up to 50 percent. In Baltimore City, that’s $68,000 for home buyers and $45,550 for renters, based on a four-person household.
“We are now laser-focused on residential development,” Washington said. “ReBuild Metro is important to us achieving that mandate for affordable housing.”
Hopkins is trying to encourage residential growth, too, offering “live near your work” grants and helping fund the Henderson-Hopkins Elementary/Middle School, which is operated and partially funded by the university’s School of Education. Hopkins also anchored new buildings and offered land for apartments, said Andrew B. Frank, special adviser to the university president.
“As an anchor institution, our participation is part of a shared strategy and is designed to produce shared outcomes,” Frank said.
The push to return residents has garnered support from those long concerned about the fate of the displaced, though skepticism remains.
“I do applaud their attempt to bring residents back, but it needs to be at the same scale of displacement,” Morgan State’s Brown said. “Moving them back to Middle East is not doing the community any favors. It’s what they said they would do, it’s honoring their word.”
With former residents scattered around the city long ago, it’s not clear how many know about opportunities to return, he said. EBDI needs to aggressively search for the hundreds displaced, perhaps by running radio and TV ads and contacting former community leaders, Brown said.
EBDI’s Washington said it tracked displaced residents for five years and recently hired a consultant to track down residents with whom it’s lost touch.
The developers also need to be mindful of where they return displaced residents, Brown said. Targeting specific blocks for these residents creates “micro-segregation,” already an issue in Baltimore. Low-income and pricier homes should be intermixed for economic and racial diversity, he said.
Sallie Gorham’s family was displaced when EBDI bought her mother’s home more than a decade ago and moved her to Belair-Edison. The new mortgage was $40,000 with a 6.25 percent rate, higher than the old mortgage of less than $7,600 with a 4 percent rate. Lucille Gorham, a longtime East Baltimore resident and well-known community activist who criticized the redevelopment, couldn’t afford the new mortgage and the needed renovations, so she took out a reverse mortgage to help pay for it all, her daughter said.
When her mother died in 2012, the bank took the house and Sallie Gorham moved to a one-bedroom apartment with her now 12-year-old son and her 3-year-old grandson.
She said she would like to move back to her old home, which would have been paid off by now. But EBDI says she doesn’t qualify for aid because her name was not on the EBDI paperwork indicating she lived there at the time of the move.
“No one has helped me, and I’ve gotten no information,” said Gorham, 52. “They moved a lot of people out, including a lot of elderly people who they scattered around the city, and no one could communicate with each other. It’s all been very depressing.”
Donald Gresham, 64, was among those who avoided displacement. Now an activist, he said he expects many people will not be able to take advantage of aid to return even if they are located. Many accumulated more debt after their move, which EBDI wouldn’t cover, he said.
“Where is the money going to come from?” he said. “The $10,000 wouldn’t be enough.”
That’s how much EBDI is offering to homeowners to assist with closing costs and moving expenses in its latest aid package. It’s offering up to $2,500 for renters for security deposits, application fees and moving expenses.
Both Gorham and Gresham said they’ve struggled to stay in contact with old neighbors and questioned how well EBDI is tracking them to even make them the offer. That could be a loss for individuals, but there already has been a larger cost for the community.
Such “big footprint” renewal projects can cause a loss of so-called social capital, said Stephen J.K. Walters, an economics professor at Loyola University Maryland who described the effects in his book “Boom Towns.” He said residents in neighborhoods form networks of friends, charitable and fraternal organizations, and professional contacts that have significant value in helping them navigate everyday life. They are especially important in poor neighborhoods.
“The problem is that these networks and their capital values are intangible, and therefore commonly ignored by planners when they devise their big renewal plans,” Walters said. “When 740 families are moved, the social fabric is torn. Each of these families has likely had to create new social networks wherever they landed, at great cost. Even those families that remained have likely seen some of their social capital disappear as their networks shrank; moving some families back after an exodus lasting years may not easily re-establish the social capital.”
Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said responsible development means working with a neighborhood and considering community interests first. The Casey Foundation has invested in some EBDI projects.
“Residents should be involved at every step, hiring should be local and inclusive, and every effort should be taken to protect the environment and people’s health,” he said.
Suzane Roberts said she just wants a neighborhood like the one she remembers from her youth. She jumped at the offer to return after she learned about the program from Councilman Robert Stokes Sr., who grew up nearby.
The home was owned by Roberts’ grandparents and passed down through family until EBDI bought it and relocated a cousin to a home around the corner. Roberts’ family is happy she is reclaiming the property. Roberts, her son and maybe a niece now plan to live in the house.
She and other family members said the house needed a lot of work and the neighborhood needed revitalization. The family recently visited the home and recounted their happy childhoods living there.
They voiced hope that other families would move in and advocate for parks, schools and safety, developing roots and looking out for one another.
“They tore down so many buildings, it was heartbreaking,” said Carolyn Gray, Roberts’ oldest sister, now 79 and living in Baltimore County. “We were raised here and, though it was heaven for us, sometime back it became a little bit of hell.”
“It’s good to see the city being built back up,” Gray said.