A seat on a MARC or Amtrak train passing through the city offers a view of Station East, a transforming neighborhood in East Baltimore. About 124 two-story rowhouses make up a community set between the Elmer Henderson Elementary School and a community center housed in a former 1914 Greif Brothers clothing factory.
The railroad right-of-way and East Eager Street create Station East’s northern boundary. It has taken about four years for Station East to look the way it does today. In 2013, it was a neighborhood with a 70 percent vacancy rate. Many houses had threadbare roofs and boarded-up windows. Its alleys were battered.
It also had residents who wanted to stay and see their community repaired.
A neighborhood organization, the nonprofit Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, which works closely with its neighbor, Johns Hopkins Hospital, commissioned a planning study. As a result, neighborhood leaders worked to have the worst 90 housing units demolished, and green spaces, or community parks, put in their place.
The nonprofit group took possession of 41 rowhouses and began the work of rebuilding them and putting them on the market. (Other rowhouses in the neighborhood are rentals and remain in the hands of individual landlords, and some vacant structures remain.)
The 41 rowhouses are being renovated to state historic preservation standards. In one case, a faded painted brick wall ad for a corner bakery, once owned by a Czech immigrant, has been restored. The builders re-excavated basements so that the houses now accommodate a third bedroom. (Three families who owned in the neighborhood gave up their houses and, in return, received renovated homes.)
Ted Rouse, the son of Columbia developer James W. Rouse, was attracted to the plan and invested $250,000 through his company, Healthy Planet LLC, in a partnership with the nonprofit neighborhood coalition
“I saw an opportunity to do neighborhood transformation,” he said. “It’s been a great partnership. We’ve had renovation, financing and marketing challenges, but it’s been a wonderfully satisfying time. We’ve sold 35 houses.”
“Station East is a tongue-and-cheek play off a better-known neighborhood, Station North,” said Ed Sabatino, director of the neighborhood coalition. “We are not just building houses; we are building a neighborhood. We want to make a good place. A nice house in a lousy neighborhood is a hard sell.”
Sabatino, who came to work at this job in 2004, says that Station East follows several nearby successes, including a Hopkins housing initiative near Eager Park and other large tracts of rehabilitation in the Oliver and Middle East communities.
“You have a redevelopment corridor that is unbroken,” he said of a swath of community revival that roughly parallels the Amtrak corridor in East Baltimore.
While the 41 rowhouses — most of them built about 1905 by local developer Frank Novak — are being sold to new buyers, Station East’s rental properties remain. Some have received upgrades — weatherization and new windows — thanks to city grants. Rents are between $800 and $1,200 a month.
The completely rehabbed houses are now selling for about $220,000 to $260,000 each. Signs say you can own one for the same as paying $1,100 a month in rent.
“This is designed to make existing residents participate and benefit from the development,” said Sabatino, who acknowledges that much work remains to be done in the neighborhood.
Buyers who work for Hopkins can be eligible for a $17,000 assistance grant from the institution to go toward a down payment and closing costs. There is also a city historic rehabilitation tax credit, which guarantees buyers a tax bill for 10 years of about $700 a year. There are other incentives. Because these houses had been vacant, their buyers can qualify for a $10,000 Baltimore City grant. The Abell Foundation also has a $10,000 grant available to teachers, police officers and firefighters.
“We worked with good architects who would produce homes that were historically accurate and … highly energy-efficient,” Rouse said.
"When we began, our marketing model said the audience to buy in Station East would be a single, African-American woman who would be able to buy a house for the same or less than an apartment rent,” he said. “We had some of that market buy — and would like to have more. But we discovered we attracted many millennials who are willing to be pioneers.”