To rejuvenate Southeast Baltimore, a neighborhood group has created a center to help promote homeownership in the area.
The Southeast Community Organization, or SECO, and the affiliated Southeast Development Inc., have opened an office at 3614 Eastern Ave. to offer counseling and low-interest loans to home buyers. The group also plans a promotional campaign -- TV and radio ads, leaflets and posters -- to lure home buyers and businesses to the area.
"This is more a case of preserving a neighborhood that is at risk of turning bad," said Kenneth A. Stewart, executive director of SECO.
The area, which includes 88,000 people in dozens of communities including Highlandtown, Canton, Fells Point and Little Italy, has fallen on some tough times in recent years, with a growing number of renters moving in and a slew of businesses moving out. Many properties and storefronts lie vacant, most notably on Eastern Avenue.
According to SECO, homeownership has fallen to 70 percent in 1990 from 74 percent in 1980, and the vacancy rate for all housing is 11 percent. Home prices have fallen 6 percent over the past two years.
"I was born and raised in the area, and I have seen a lot of changes, and they haven't all been positive," said Anthony J. Trotto, president of Southeast Development Inc.
Though leaders say the community is still solid, they worry about the number of homes on the market. Of the 30,000 homes in the area, 1,100 are listed on the Multiple Listing Service, which does not include for-sale-by-owner properties. Though sales are brisk, Stewart said, they cannot keep pace with the growing number of for-sale signs.
"The glut of houses on the market right now is a welcome mat for investors to buy them cheap and convert them to rentals," Mr. Stewart. The more rentals, leaders fear, the less stable the neighborhood and the faster it will decline.
In addition, most of the houses in Southeast Baltimore cost between $40,000 and $80,000, requiring small mortgages that many lenders are averse to make. And many potential buyers have trouble coming up with down payments or closing costs. The center will work to bring in lenders and offer low-interest loans to cover closing costs and down payments.
The center will cost $300,000 to run, financed through the city and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., a federally chartered company that helps nonprofit community groups. The Neighborhood Housing Services, part of the reinvestment corporation, will provide $200,000 for the loan programs.
The center is an outgrowth of a blueprint for the neighborhood that leaders put together over 18 months and released in December.
"Southeast Baltimore is at a crossroads," said a report. "Over the past 20 years, Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods have experienced changes in population, business and commercial areas, and houses. While many of these changes have had a positive impact on life in Southeast Baltimore, there are many longer-term trends that threaten the continued vitality of southeast Baltimore neighborhoods."
The center, which will have a staff of six, will be called the Gloria Aull Information Center. Ms. Aull was a community activist who helped form SECO. She died in December.