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Johns Hopkins super-grant draws homebuyers to revitalization zone

More than 50 homes went under contract in Eager Park on Saturday, many of them from buyers taking advantage of a $36,000 Live Near Your Work grant from Johns Hopkins. (Natalie Sherman/Baltimore Sun video)

Dozens of homes went under contract Saturday in a zone of rehabs and grassy lots north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, as homebuyers were lured to the once-and-future neighborhood by the promise of thousands of dollars in incentives.

A $36,000, one-day-only offer to employees of Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health System as part of their Live Near Your Work program was designed to create buzz for the area. It's the site of an ambitious and controversial revitalization project that struggled to gain momentum for years.

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And it appeared to work. Faced with more potential buyers than the number of houses initially included in the offer, Ryan Homes released additional lots to meet the demand, a Hopkins spokesman said. Ryan Homes is working with Greenebaum Enterprises on building 49 homes there.

"Without the programs, I wouldn't be buying in the city," said Terrence Woods, 30, a financial analyst at Hopkins Health System, who currently rents with his girlfriend and 2-year-old daughter in Owings Mills.

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Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels said he was "thrilled" by the signs of interest. Forty-five of more than 50 homes sold Saturday qualified for the incentive.

"The excitement and energy here today says everything about the future of this community," Daniels said. "It's really very encouraging in terms of the strong, diverse, working-class community we're trying to build."

Johns Hopkins started offering Live Near Your Work grants in 1997, but the program has become more popular in recent years, as the money available increased, thanks in part to a $2.5 million grant the Rouse Foundation made in 2008. (The city also supplements employer programs.)

Since then, Hopkins has paid more than $5 million in grants to nearly 590 employees buying homes in Baltimore.

Buyers on Saturday said the size of Saturday's incentive was critical to making them interested in the homes, which ranged from $235,000 for a rehab to around $300,000 for new construction.

"There is a bit of a premium on it, and it's an up-and-coming neighborhood," said Daniel Healy, 31, a systems engineer at Hopkins, who estimated that he would cobble together more than $50,000 in incentives to make the purchase worth it.

Hopkins official Andrew Frank, who advises Daniels on economic development, said pricing has not been a drag on sales. The impetus behind Saturday's offer was jump-starting the neighborhood, he said.

"This is really an effort to create instant community," said Frank, who estimated that more homes in the area would sell Saturday than the total for the last two years.

Representatives for Ryan Homes declined to comment.

But even as Saturday's showing underscored the impact of subsidies on homebuyer demand, some buyers and developers said they are worried about cuts to a different city incentive, which provided $10,000 to purchasers of former vacants.

More than 360 homebuyers have taken advantage of that program, which exhausted its funds for this year in August.

State Sen. Catherine Pugh, who won the Democratic primary for mayor and is expected to be elected in November in the heavily Democratic city, said she "absolutely" wanted to increase funding for homeownership incentives and was interested in the city organizing events similar to the one on Saturday by Hopkins.

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Daniels is "showing the city what we can do all over the city," Pugh said.

Now dubbed Eager Park, the area was previously known as Middle East. After the start of the 88-acre East Baltimore Development Inc. redevelopment, it also gained the moniker EBDI.

The $1.8 billion project, which required the relocation of about 740 families, was supposed to result in about 1,500 new homes and 1.7 million square feet of new office and retail buildings. But it has languished for years.

Tiffani Martin-Few, 35, who grew up in Belair-Edison and is a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, said she wouldn't have predicted that she would end up living there. She said the $36,000 incentive made the difference.

"It took me a while to view this as something positive because I saw the slow trickle of friends and family being pushed out," she said, after selecting one of the Ryan Homes lots for a future house. "Now I get to take advantage of the benefits and reclaim a piece of what was potentially lost."

Around the rehabs and lots, other work is underway.

Raymond Skinner, president and CEO at East Baltimore Development Inc., the non-profit in charge of the redevelopment, said he expects a new park to be complete by the end of the year, with a hotel and new market-rate rental building following. Another 125 houses are in the pipeline in the next two to three years.

The still-evolving nature of the neighborhood isn't a problem, said Chizoba Wonodi, 45, a researcher at the School of Public Health. She and her husband own a home in Ellicott City but with children grown, they're ready to downsize and live closer to Wonodi's work.

"We look at it as an investment," Wonodi said. "We can see what the future is going to look like."

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