Donald Gresham is willing to vacate his home of 20 years, but he will never leave East Baltimore, his lifelong neighborhood.
"It's where I grew up, where I was educated, where my history is and where I am staying," Gresham told a crowd of nearly 100 gathered yesterday for a housing conference at the East Baltimore Community Resource Center. "I don't plan to go anywhere."
But, like many in the crowd, Gresham will have to go somewhere. His two-bedroom rowhouse on Chester Street is slated for demolition.
Much of the area that extends east from Greenmount Avenue to Edison Highway is undergoing sweeping changes to make way for an $800 million biotechnology park on 88 acres adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital, a project that is well under way.
Although Gresham's home will be razed, other houses in the neighborhood will be preserved and renovated. He wants one of those restored houses in a simple transfer of property with no increased debt - a house for his house.
"They can just [relocate] me right into another house right here in East Baltimore," he said. "We have the gold mine. They have to fix this for us."
"A House for a House" has become the rallying cry for the Save Middle East Action Committee, an advocacy group for displaced homeowners, which Gresham chairs.
The conference gave residents a chance to voice their complaints to East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit organization created by the city to manage the project. The corporation is negotiating the property settlements, overseeing the renovations and assisting residents with relocations.
"We are planning a strong, mixed-income community with plenty of options," said John T. "Jack" Shannon Jr., president of EBDI.
The company helped relocate nearly 400 homeowners in the first phase of the project.
Shannon said a survey his group commissioned revealed that eight out of 10 of those relocated were satisfied with the process.
Shrene Burnett left the neighborhood in the initial phase for a home in Hamilton that more than tripled her mortgage.
"We were the guinea pigs and there were a lot of bumps," she said. "But we stood our ground."
She still serves as the action committee secretary and on the EBDI board of directors. She said she might eventually move back to East Baltimore. She would have many housing choices, Shannon said.
The company has already leased 46 of the 74 units in a senior housing complex that opens next month. Of the new tenants, 29 are East Baltimore residents. Work force housing - 78 apartments - will be ready by the end of the year, and by 2009 about 400 new homes will be built, Shannon said.
"This is a proud community with a positive history," Shannon said. "We are offering a whole new set of opportunities."
Through the next 18 months, the company will offer displaced homeowners an average of $153,000 for their residences, as well as moving and settlement expenses. It also is providing housing and jobs counseling that has helped 39 renters become homeowners.
"EBDI thinks people should just be grateful, but they don't realize they are putting people out of their homes," said Nathan Sooy, executive director of the action committee. "A House for a House is a program that won't leave people in worse financial shape."
Many residents, invested in their homes through generations, looked at plans for new $250,000 homes and felt priced out of the market.
"The truth is they don't want us here," said Verona Blackston, who has lived on Ashland Avenue since 1986. "They want to put doctors, nurses and police in those new houses. They think poor people are not important."
Blackston, 64, has watched as five of the eight homes on her block were vacated and boarded up. No one would buy a home that might be demolished, she said. But she renovated the kitchen and installed new doors and windows in the 1920s-era home. She had not finished paying the $13,000 cost for the upgrades when she learned that her home would be torn down to make way for a new charter school.
"I didn't want to go, but I have to go, and I have nowhere to go," Blackston said. "I have nothing against the biotech. In the future, it may even help me, but they should have put houses up first."
Gresham has counted at least 111 vacant homes on what the company calls "preserved blocks." He wants one of those in exchange for his Chester Street house, where he has less than 10 years left on a 30-year mortgage. His $300 monthly payment is all he can afford on his salary as a physical therapy technician.
"I struggled. I worked hard to buy my house," he said. "EBDI owes me, and East Baltimore has taught me how to fight and how to stand up for others."