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Volunteers pitch in to renovate homes under Baltimore homesteading program


All along the 1100 block of Mc Donogh Street over the weekend, the sound of hammers pounding nails mixed with the intermittent, high-pitched scream of electric saws slicing wood and the voices of work crews intent on renovating six dilapidated houses that had stood empty for years.

The workers were volunteers, giving an afternoon of life to help the People's Homesteading Group renovate the homes and raise money to continue its efforts.

Lori Shollenberger, who organized the event, said the "workathon"should raise about $30,000. The money goes into the group's revolving fund to buy materials and set up loan programs for other houses.

The McDonogh Street houses were donated by the city.

Elmer Wilson, who lives in Northeast Baltimore, already has staked his claim to a house being renovated in the 2800 block of West North Avenue. But Mr. Wilson spent part of the weekend on McDonogh Street, working in the program he learned about from a cousin.

"I knew she was getting [a house], and I decided to help her," he said. "Everything just fell in place, and I found I liked it, doing this physical work."

For Mr. Wilson and the rest of the homesteaders, the program, which has been operating since 1983, provides a chance not only to buy a house, but to participate in its renovation and to learn basic repair skills. And in the process, the homesteaders can chip in hundreds of hours worth of "sweat equity" toward the purchase.

Mortgages range between $10,000 and $15,000 with monthly payments of no more than $150, a price range that Mr. Wilson said fits his budget. Yet, he said, some of his friends don't quite understand the "sweat equity" aspect of getting a house.

"A lot of them think they're just supposed to come in and get a house, but it doesn't work like that. You have to put in your time," he said. "A lot of them want the house, but they don't want to come in and do the house."

At first glance, it's hard to imagine the McDonogh Street houses being spruced-up, livable homes. From the rear, some look to be in total disrepair. Brick walls have collapsed, and everywhere are the black scars of fire. The sky can be seen through one roof. But, by the spring, these two-story houses will have gone from being gutted skeletons to fully renovated homes.

That will be welcome news to Aesop Goodson, who has lived on the block for nearly 40 years and who spent part of the weekend clearing weeds from the gutter and sidewalk near his home.

XTC "I always like to see progress," he said. "This used to be a beautiful block, but like everything else, time takes its toll. I'm glad to see the work being done."

Stella Hagen, who works for Black & Decker Corp. and now lives in Timonium, used to live not far away from the renovation site. Several people from her company and from Chase Bank participated in the renovation work. Ms. Hagen volunteered for the first time over the weekend.

"I specifically didn't want to do anything clerical. I wanted to get dirty," Ms. Hagen said. "I was hoping to do some carpentry, but we were assigned to trash detail. But that's OK."

Like many other volunteers on the project, Ms. Hagen seemed to enjoy simply being able to help someone in need.

That's why Ramona Smith got involved in the program three years ago. Her best friend, who eventually bought one of the program's renovated houses, asked her to volunteer. Ms. Smith agreed and eventually saw her friend move into a home in the 2800 block of West North Avenue. She said she also learned how to do a lot of repair work in her own house.

"Basically I can do all of it except the plumbing and the electrical," she said. "It's a wonderful experience to have a home. makes you feel good. This way, you can say, 'I put something into this.' "

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