It easy to spot the vacant houses in so many of Baltimore’s older neighborhoods. It’s far more difficult to spot ongoing renovation of the city’s housing stock.
In the last decade there is a bright spot — the 1700 block of E. Biddle Street, near Broadway and just north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus. The homes are in the Broadway East-Eager Park neighborhood.
The catalyst for this encouraging transformation is ReBUILD Metro, a community initiative not as well known as it should be. This group, led by Baltimore city church pastors and neighborhood residents, has performed unsung neighborhood and housing miracles in the past decade.
The city government recently acknowledged their success by giving $50 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds “to eliminate blight and address vacant housing in the city.”
It was the deaths of three Baltimore firefighters in a South Stricker Street vacant building fire Jan. 25 that renewed attention on the city’s vacant house issue.
The city’s abundance of vacant housing translates another way. A comparison of the 2010 and 2020 federal censuses revealed that Baltimore lost nearly 35,000 residents.
“People do not want to live on a block with vacant houses,” said Sean Closkey, a ReBUILD Metro official.
“Billions of dollars must be invested over the next 10 years to eradicate the cancer of 15,000 vacant homes,” said the Rev. Andrew Connors, a Presbyterian minister who lives on Stricker Street at Union Square in Southwest Baltimore — just a short walk from the place where the firefighters perished.
Connors is a player on the ReBUILD Metro team.
It was another tragedy, a fire that raged through the Dawson family home in 2002, that sparked the birth of a redevelopment effort in East Baltimore’s Oliver community, where ReBUILD Metro has been hard at work for years.
“Twenty years later, Oliver has literally risen from the ashes of decay and disinvestment,” said Connors, the pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church. “The rate of vacant homes dropped from 48% to below 7%. The median home price has risen from $18,540 to $152,000, while the homicide rate has been cut in half.”
Anyone who walks Caroline Street or along North Broadway sees the remarkable changes of the past two decades. The same encouraging story is also true in Baltimore’s Greenmount West (near the Green Mount Cemetery) and Broadway East neighborhoods.
At a time when Baltimore was losing population, city data shows that all three of these areas saw a population increases from 31% to 48%, he said.
“We achieved all this without displacing a single neighborhood resident,” said Connors.
ReBUILD Metro is now focusing its attention on a major revitalization in Johnston Square, near Greenmount Avenue and Preston Street.
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ReBUILD Metro has a strategy: The new development must be directed by the community of residents who live there. These “legacy residents” must not be priced out or pushed out. Instead, the development should squeeze out blight and vacancy.
And the neighborhoods must be right-sized for the city’s current population, reducing density in most neighborhoods through creative design techniques and the expansion of parks and other green spaces.
The news about Baltimore’s high vacancy rate and population loss is sobering. ReBUILD says the city loses three homes per day to vacancy.
“It’s a euphemism for abandonment,” said Closkey. “Without a bolder vision, the city will lose 10,000 more homes to abandonment over the next decade, shedding people and tax revenues and hope with it. We believe our work provides more than hope, it is a blueprint to rebuild a vibrant Baltimore”
Connors described the $50 million the city is earmarking for vacant houses as a “down payment.”
“The Black community in Baltimore has been disproportionately affected by housing disinvestment,” he said.
“We have to rebuild the whole housing market in a neighborhood to make our strategy work,” he said. “We are also looking to build generational wealth in African American families. Home ownership is a key.”