Light rain fell on a May morning when crews began demolishing vacant rowhouses along McCabe Avenue in north Baltimore nearly four years ago, and it was falling there again Saturday — this time on fresh sod and balloons marking the dedication of four new homes.
"When I heard the rain this morning, I said, 'Oh, we're still being blessed,'" said Monica Gaines, president of the Woodbourne-McCabe Neighborhood Association and a lifelong resident of the community.
Dozens of volunteers, neighbors and supporters were on hand Saturday afternoon to formally dedicate the homes, in a celebration where Habitat for Humanity officials handed over ceremonial keys to four women, the new homeowners. The blighted structures that once stood in the homes' place were among the first to be torn down under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Value urban renewal program in 2011.
"It was a vacant house, and it's going to be a home," said LaKeisha Hunt, a city worker who will soon move into one of the homes at the corner of McCabe and Ivanhoe avenues. "This is my first home, and I will cherish it."
The construction of the new homes was part of a plan to rehabilitate 21 properties in the neighborhood, just to the northeast of the intersection of Cold Spring Lane and York Road. Three of the sites are being converted into parks, while 18 are to become new homes, said officials with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake.
The properties were made available through the Vacants to Value program, which identifies distressed areas with high concentrations of abandoned properties and facilitates large-scale redevelopment. The administration says 3,000 vacant properties have been demolished or rehabilitated under the initiative.
The mayor unveiled the program in 2010 as a way to deal with the more than 30,000 vacant houses in the city, and to help grow the city's population. It kicked off the following year with hydraulic shovels knocking down five houses on McCabe Avenue.
Half of the homes in the neighborhood were vacant, Habitat officials said, many of 1920s- and 1930s-era structures having sat empty for a decade or more.
Saturday's ceremony marked progress in that rehabilitation process, Rawlings-Blake said.
"We're not just tearing things down," Rawlings-Blake told the crowd. "We're also creating a pathway for these neighborhoods to grow into the future."
Volunteers and neighbors cheered as Hunt and the three other women received ceremonial keys tied to white ribbon, along with bouquets of spring flowers from Habitat staff and gift baskets of cleaning supplies from Habitat for Humanity sponsor Proctor & Gamble. The attendees poured into Hunt's home after she used massive scissors to cut a white ribbon across the door, leaving a nick across its red surface, proof of a fresh paint job.
"When they actually hand the keys over to the new homeowner, there's nothing that can nearly match that feeling," said Glenn Wells, who helped put finishing touches on Hunt's home a week earlier as part of volunteer work he does with Habitat through his church, Havenwood Presbyterian in Lutherville. "It's a really good start, I think, to what they city's objectives are."
For Hunt and the other women, it is a fresh start in their lives. Hunt grew up near Patterson Park before bouncing around between various relatives' homes. But when a colleague at the city's Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant moved into a Habitat-constructed home, she thought maybe it would be a way for her to find her first home, too.
The program requires homeowners put in "sweat equity" — Hunt worked 100 hours in the organization's ReStore, a discounted home improvement store that sells donated items to subsidize its work, and she spent another 100 hours working on construction projects in Woodbourne-McCabe. The homeowners are also responsible for a down payment and affordable mortgage payments.
On Saturday, her new home became a reality, as she joked with friends and family about who she would invite over first.
"This is gonna be my closet!" she joked as they explored the home's second bedroom. It also has one and a half bathrooms, a refrigerator and electric range, and a stacked washer and dryer.
Neighbors were eager to welcome the women. Drugs and violence seeped into the area during the 1960s and 1970s, and though it has been quieter in recent decades, the turmoil drove many residents out, leaving blight behind.
"This is a new beginning for you," Gaines told the homeowners. "You have come at a prime time in this community."