Dream home of Jamila Ward and her fiance, Lionel Jennings.
Dream home of Jamila Ward and her fiance, Lionel Jennings. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Jamila Ward and Lionel Jennings had been house hunting on and off for two years when their agent pointed the couple in a new direction: a formerly condemned property in a revitalized area of Baltimore.

Some city neighborhoods, just years ago marked by abandoned or deteriorating single-family homes, are becoming places of renewal, with nonprofit agencies buying up properties and renovating them for sale to first-time homebuyers.


Ward and Jennings, her fiance, qualified for one of these properties in the Johnston Square neighborhood on the city's east side. Cara Fabian, associate broker at Cummings and Company Realtors in Canton, led them to a three-story brick rowhouse across from the square.

"This area was used in the filming of the HBO series 'The Wire,' " said Ward, a 30-year-old San Francisco native and business development associate for Addx, a government contracting company. "Johnston Square is turning around and becoming a hot area to own property."

Through the Baltimore Vacants to Value homebuyer program, which gave them $10,000 toward either the purchase or closing costs, the couple made an offer on the partially renovated property. The construction company that owned two properties on their street accepted their bid, finished the work and even customized portions of the property to their specifications.

The couple paid $185,000 for the 3,000-square-foot rowhouse, built in 1914. Far from the condemned property it had once been, the house took on a new life just as the couple were starting a new life together. They moved in last August and plan to marry on May 27.

"We got way more than we ever expected to have for half the cost," Ward said. "The architectural makeup, exposed bricks, decks and abundance of additional space surpassed our expectations and created this dream home that we did not expect [we] could afford."

The red brick exterior, new and solid in its support of the dark gray trim on door and windows, is handsome in its simplicity.

Just inside the front door, hardwood flooring laid in vertical wide planks guides the eye a full 45 feet to the back "wall" of the dining room, which is actually a floor to ceiling room divider designed to look like a freestanding brick chimney with an open hearth. This feature allows enough room on either side to walk from dining room to the 15-by-16-foot kitchen, where a mirror version of the divider separates the two rooms without closing them off.

Cherry cabinets in the kitchen gleam against the steel-gray of the room's appliances. Granite countertops speckled brown and beige meet a backsplash of alternating half-inch brown glass blocks and ceramic tiles arranged in a diamond design.

Ten-foot ceilings throughout the home, along with exposed brick on both walls of the living room and Ward's keen sense of scale in furniture choices, give the appearance of a much larger interior than its overall dimensions of 60 by 16 feet. She purchased most of the furniture new with the idea of coordinating textures and style with the architectural features of the interior.

For example, her contemporary-style, cherry wood dining table, 8 feet long, follows the lines of the floor; the vertical slatted backs of its chairs providing geometric contrast with the horizontal laying of the bricks on the wall beside them. The overall effect is at once organic and elegantly raw.

A guest bedroom and Jennings' office are on the second floor, where the 30-year-old government contractor, who recently returned from Afghanistan, works surrounded by his medal collection representing all the places he has visited during his time in the military.

The third floor features the couple's master bedroom and bathroom suite. Decks have been built off the back rooms on both the second and third floors, allowing for views of the neighborhood and the city skyline beyond.

Looking out on her adopted city, Ward said, "Our experience has been amazing — we love our neighbors, and we have found great joy in the activities offered in our surrounding area."

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Making the dream

Dream realized: "Sometimes Lionel says, 'I can't believe it here; this house is so nice,' " Jamila Ward said, adding that the couple is grateful for the city's homebuyer program. "We strongly encourage others to take advantage of all of the wonderful incentives Baltimore offers homebuyers and to purchase renovated homes in up-and-coming areas to aid the city in [its] efforts to renew residential areas." For more information on the Baltimore Vacants to Value homebuyer program, go to baltimorehousing.org/vacants_to_value.aspx.

Dream location: "Our home is located blocks from Johns Hopkins [Hospital], which is very convenient for me right now [since] I am pregnant," said Ward. "We live close to a local library and about a five-minute drive into the main downtown area. We love being such a short distance from popular local restaurants, close to so many churches and the Dome, a local basketball court for youth."