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Bolton Hill residents unite to sell empty homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first worrisome signs appeared about a year ago in Paul R. Hager's neighborhood. Mr. Hager, a financial consultant, was troubled by evidence of neglect amid the stately, late 19th-century brownstones of Bolton Hill.

Along blocks of spacious rowhouses known for ornamental cornices and 12-foot ceilings, pine floors and crystal chandeliers were several homes in need of paint or structural repairs. A few sat abandoned by landlord owners, and vandals and vagrants were quickly taking over.

Many of Mr. Hager's neighbors were as alarmed as he. They, too, lived in the downtown neighborhood because they thrived on an urban lifestyle that put light rail, theaters and grassy parks at their doorstep. They appreciated how a couple of blocks could produce an architectural mix ranging from Italian Renaissance to Victorian to Federal.

When two rowhouses owned by absentee landlords became the first boarded-up in years, residents had seen enough.

"People don't want to come to live in an area with boarded-up homes," said Mr. Hager, a soft-spoken 39-year-old clad in suit and tie, who works as senior partner at The Venture Group from a home office in a Bolton Street rowhouse he is restoring.

"You see the first signs of a neighborhood under siege when you see boarded-up homes," he said. "Bolton Hill desperately needs more homeowners and families and more energy."

He and some neighbors figured they could attract more homeowners to Bolton Hill by paving the way for them, investing time and money to actually help them move in. They reasoned that would show prospective buyers how serious residents are about improving life in their part of a city that's been losing its middle class to the suburbs for decades.

Residents decided to buy and rehabilitate properties and sell them at cost as single-family homes. To do so, about a dozen homeowners are forming a limited partnership that appears to be one of the first of its kind.

Their challenge seems great, at a time when real estate agents and sellers lament that homes for sale greatly outnumber buyers -- in many city neighborhoods. Last week, 53 single-family homes were listed for sale in Bolton Hill -- 170 acres bordered by Mount Royal Avenue on the east, Eutaw Place on the west, Dolphin Street on the south and North Avenue on the north. Asking prices ranged from $79,000 to $364,000, said Henry A. Strominger III, an agent with Prudential Preferred Properties.

By forming the Bolton Hill Partnership, residents hope to reverse that trend, to "buy up properties that have been neglected and rejuvenate them with historical preservation in mind," Mr. Hager said. "This is a neighborhood that's not going to quit."

Not only will the new partnership try to help buyers through the buying and finance process, but it will offer homes that can be tailored to buyers' needs during restoration.

"People are always interested in molding buildings to their own needs," said Werner A. Mueller, an architect who lives on Bolton Street. "We're going to be competing with other neighborhoods for fewer people who are willing to stay or move into the city."

Though Bolton Hill has seen its share of break-ins and vandalism, Mr. Hager says residents continue to fight back -- cleaning littered alleyways through the Mount Royal Improvement Association and hiring citizens and private security patrols.

The partnership will be set up as a limited liability company, LTC taking effect later this month. Members have no liability beyond their initial investment, estimated from $1,500 to $3,000 per person. Members, through majority votes, will make investment decisions, while an elected management council will buy properties, get construction financing and oversee restoration. Besides the 12 already committed to the partnership, at least 20 others have expressed interest in joining.

Mr. Hager estimates the group will need $100,000 initially, to buy one or possibly two homes. He estimates that a home purchased for $50,000, for example, might require $100,000 worth of renovation, while a $100,000 home might require the same. Those homes, in turn, could be sold for about $150,000 and $200,000, with proceeds recycled into future restorations.

The partnership intends to save as much as $30,000 per house by relying on its members' expertise. For example, Mr. Hager will make financial assessments. A Bolton Hill lawyer has offered to establish the partnership's legal framework. And architects, interior designers, contractors and construction experts who live the neighborhood have agreed to act as consultants when hiring contractors and to work with homebuyers to design renovations.

A similar plan saved Bolton Hill more than three decades ago, longtime residents say. With an exodus to the suburbs in full swing after World War II, investors snapped up properties and divided them into apartments, often letting them become run-down.

An 81-year-old resident of Bolton Street for 45 years recalled how homes became worn, with rotting wood, sagging porches and littered yards. Robert H. Smith's family was one during the late 1950s that bought shares, for $1 each, in the Bolton Hill Co. The company bought, restored and sold some 38 homes. The neighborhood made its first comeback.

"It kept the blight from spreading," said Mrs. Smith, who asked that her first name not be used.

Even by the early 1970s, when Buzz Cusack moved to Bolton Hill, "it seemed to have a great deal more promise and optimism, but then rates went up and things stabilized. There is concern about real estate in the city. It's not valued highly, but there are terrific real estate deals around."

Now, "the idea of a community taking an interest in its own real estate and supporting it and trying to develop it just makes sense," said Mr. Cusack, who owns a general contracting company and early this year opened a deli in a century-old building at the corner of Bolton and Mosher streets. "If we decide to live in the city and live in a particular neighborhood, it's in our best interest to help make it work," he said.

By taking steps before deterioration becomes more serious, the group has a good chance of reaching its goal, said David Elam, director of development for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. While individuals have restored homes for years in city neighborhoods such as Patterson Park and Otterbein, Mr. Elam said he knows of no other groups forming their own development company.

Mr. Hager envisions a day when groups such as Bolton Hill's can join with others in neighborhoods working to revitalize housing. He would like to coordinate efforts with neighborhood groups in Reservoir Hill and along Madison Avenue, which are launching programs to educate buy ers about homeownership and also plan to restore neglected homes.

On a sunny day last week, Mr. Hager walked north on Park Avenue, past a park separating the northbound and southbound sides of the street, past homes with marble steps, wrought iron railings and large shuttered windows. At one home on Park Avenue, vines climbed a brick wall that bowed precariously toward the roof.

Owner Anne Dzikielewski, who can no longer care for the house and small yard, wants to sell and move to a retirement apartment. She led the way through the first-floor apartment where she has lived and rented upstairs rooms for 48 years. The home has narrow hallways and staircases, peeling linoleum and cracked and chipped plaster and tile.

But Mr. Hager sees opportunities there and in the other vacant homes -- for repointed brick, redesigned floor plans, gleaming floors and polished brass fixtures. Beyond that, he says, he and others in the partnership see residents moving in and planting roots, possibly by next year.

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