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Urban Renewal for the 21st Century


Our home had been on this impossibly weak real-estate market for just a couple of weeks this spring, when the woman appeared at our door clutching a flier bearing details of our brick Cape Cod house in West Baltimore.

Before you assume we're part of the middle-class migration from the city, let me note that we're just planning to move to a different part of the city. Despite all the gloom-and-doom reports about city living, we actually choose to live in Baltimore because we enjoy it.

We'd, of course, like to see more people buying homes in the city to give it an economic and social boost -- more tax money for schools, libraries, etc., and more folks to run scout troops, volunteer in schools, coach Little League.

That brings me back to the woman who inquired about my house for sale. In talking to her, we learned that she was one of the lucky few to benefit from the program that helps city employees purchase homes. Under that pilot program, qualifying city employees who buy a city house that they will live in may get up to $10,000 for down payments, closing costs and renovations. I don't think she could have been much happier if she had won a similar amount in the state lottery.

The city program, which is now out of money but not out of folks eager to buy homes, represents a small but important part of what needs to be done to get more homeowners into the city. The city administration should promote home ownership more vigorously by prodding local corporations, lending institutions and others into developing creative efforts to attract people to the city.

Nationally, the leader in such efforts is Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, which is offering $20,000 over 10 years to any Yale employee who buys a home in that city by the end of this year. In the first year of the two-year program, some 124 people have bought homes.

Other universities have followed Yale's lead: the University of Southern California in Los Angeles has adopted a program similar to Yale's. The University of Chicago provides second mortgages to faculty members living near campus.

Additionally, Yale has contributed $12.5 million to aid downtown revitalization efforts. The Ivy League university has taken an interest in improving the city's neighborhoods in recent years after the murder of a Yale student in a rundown area near the campus.

Would Johns Hopkins University make similar bold moves in Baltimore? This week, in a meeting with the editorial board of The Sun, Mayor Kurt Schmoke said he broached the subject of an employee incentive program similar to Yale's with Johns Hopkins' current president, who is leaving, and Mr. Schmoke said he will raise the issue again with the university's next president. Mr. Schmoke said officials at Johns Hopkins Hospital turned down the idea, saying most of their employees already live in the city.

With a strong push from city hall, Johns Hopkins University and/or another major employer should be eager to sponsor such programs. Once Hopkins becomes a key player in the city's renewal, others are bound to follow.

In New Haven, Yale's leadership has spurred several local banks into announcing a housing rehabilitation program in conjunction

with public and private agencies. A hospital, which is New Haven's fourth-largest employer, launched a program similar to Yale's a year ago.

With the decline of federal funding to cities, such cooperative local efforts appear to be the urban-renewal programs for the foreseeable future. In Baltimore, employee incentive programs, the Empowerment Zone funding and the creation of more suburban-like housing, such as that now being built in the Woodlands near Mount Washington, are all good starts. We just need more such efforts to make the city a more livable place by the dawning of the 21st century.

As for the city employee who came to our home, she didn't buy it, but she has a contract on another home in our neighborhood. Her handsome home-to-be, with its sprawling front porch, has character, something she found missing from her suburban rancher.

She said she probably wouldn't have considered it without the city's incentive program.

Her story underscores the need for more such programs to help give more middle-class homeowners a reason to choose the city over the suburbs.

N Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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