On a shaded lane in South Baltimore’s Mount Winans neighborhood, Ann Robinson was forever finding old furniture, bags of garbage and construction debris dumped on a patch of land where an old trucking company garage and several run down houses once stood.
Now, nine townhouses are rising on the half-acre plot between a row of public housing units and a recently demolished school that sat empty for a generation.
“You name it — they would come and dump it here,” said Robinson, who has lived in the quiet, 350-home community for 35 years. “Seeing this is a dream come true.”
Robinson, president of the Mount Winans Community Association, said residents have worked with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake for about five years to draw up plans for the $1.3 million project. The nonprofit expects the new homes will spur economic growth in the neighborhood and lock in affordable housing options as nearby Port Covington is redeveloped.
Hundreds of volunteers spent a recent day laying laminate wood floors, hanging drywall and cutting window trim and baseboards to prepare the homes for their future owners to move in this fall. Anthony Cairo sent pieces of long, white moulding through a miter saw, cutting off angled pieces and handing them to his coworkers from Stanley Black & Decker.
Cairo, 25, who works in the Black & Decker finance department, said it was his first time using his company’s power saw, a skill he said will help him be more handy around his own home. The company sent 350 volunteers and $15,000 worth of tools to the site last week after framing for the houses was completed recently.
“You get to come out here and do something, build something, for somebody else,” said Cairo, of Northeast Baltimore. “It’s a great feeling. It’s nice to be able to see the actual impact you’re having. It’s fun to use our tools and do something good with them.”
The majority of homes Habitat has worked on in Baltimore — including 91 homes around Patterson Park, 72 in Waverly and 41 in Pigtown — have been renovations of existing houses. But in Mount Winans, Mike Posko, CEO of the local Habitat affiliate, said there were no viable houses to rehab, a process that is significantly more expensive than new construction.
Rehabbing a house costs an estimated $150,000 to $185,000, although the price can vary greatly depending on the condition and size. New construction is more predictable, cost-efficient and marketable.
The cost per house on the Mount Winans project is $145,000. Each home is three stories and comes with three bedrooms, one and a half baths, a parking pad, central air conditioning and appliances.
Such new construction helps subsidize Habitat’s work on vacant houses, which are almost never sold at a price that covers their cost.
While the sales price for the Mount Winans homes is being finalized, the eventual homeowner’s monthly mortgage payments are expected to be $800 or less. Three of the homes have been matched to potential owners and Habitat is looking for families for the other six.
Posko said Habitat’s work in Baltimore has made a significant difference in the trajectory of neighborhoods . For example, he said, property values in Woodbourne-McCabe have risen at least 15 percent during an ongoing Habitat project in the north Baltimore neighborhood. Habitat selected the neighborhood, like the others it works in, because it has assets such as parks, walkable streets and access to public transportation or major thoroughfares that the nonprofit values.
“What it does for the neighborhood is, one, it gets rid of the blight, two, it ends up lowering the crime rate, trash issues start to disappear, because the community starts to take care of the community better, because they see more value in it,” Posko said. “We also want to drive the market up high enough so a market-rate builder will see value in coming into that neighborhood.”
In Mount Winans, Posko said the project will benefit from the proximity to Port Covington, the $5.5 billion waterfront development that is expected to include a new headquarters for Under Armour, restaurants, shops, housing and manufacturing space. The site is also home to The Baltimore Sun’s printing plant, for which the company has a long-term lease.
The developers of Port Covington, Sagamore Development Co., signed a $100 million community benefits deal, including a $39 million agreement with Mount Winans and five other nearby neighborhoods. The agreement includes money for worker training and no-interest loans and other funding for minority- or women-owned startups.
The city approved floating $660 million in bonds to build infrastructure for the Port Covington project. The city expects to repay the bonds through future taxes generated by the development.
Some worry the project could prompt real estate speculation in nearby communities, pricing out current residents. Habitat officials said their homes can help ensure the neighborhood has long-term low-to-moderate income homeowners.
“Everyone’s been talking about the importance of affordable housing,” Posko said. “It’s a great partnership to build up this community.”
Alicia Wilson of Sagamore Development said Habitat’s work, in conjunction with other efforts that are part of the community benefits agreement, “will serve as a launch pad for more significant work in South Baltimore. As the Port Covington development continues to take shape, it will be a community for all Baltimoreans.”
Mount Winans, named for a railroad inventor, is bordered by railroad tracks on two sides and Mount Auburn Cemetery. The houses were constructed in waves, including “war houses” built in the 1940s for factory workers and soldiers stationed at Fort Meade. The old school was built in 1958.
Posko said Habitat is considering the possibility of building more homes and a community center on the school site in partnership with another nonprofit that works with veterans.
The average home sale price for the 29 homes that sold in Mount Winans between 2010 and 2016 was about $40,000, according to Annie Milli, who runs Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes homeownership in the city. More than 75 percent of the houses in the neighborhood are occupied, mostly by homeowners.
Mount Winans, which has about 750 residents, is about 95 percent African-American. The neighborhood and the surrounding community’s median income is about $40,500 with a 15 percent unemployment rate.
Milli said the Habitat project is likely to have a “catalytic effect.”
“In other areas with Habitat projects, such as Woodbourne-McCabe, we've seen growth in overall sales volume and sales price in the community following,” Milli said. “These types of projects are incredibly meaningful for longtime homeowners who gain equity in their properties along with new neighbors."
Posko said Habitat worked closely with residents and the city Department of Housing and Community Development on revitalization efforts. Together, they petitioned the state for money to tear down the old school. The housing department demolished the old structures on Habitat’s site as well as some decrepit public housing units and converted the land into green space.
Wendi Redfern-Curtis, the housing department’s acting deputy commissioner for land resources, said the work in Mount Winans has been collaborative.
“If we can replicate that partnership that has come out of this in other communities, it would be really helpful,” Redfern-Curtis said.
Over 35 years, the local Habitat has built 740 homes, including 650 in Baltimore. The Chesapeake affiliate merged in the last decade with the old Sandtown-Winchester Habitat and others in Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
To buy one of Habitat’s homes, applicants need a steady income between about $19,000 and $48,000 for an individual and $27,000 and $68,000 for a family of four, which is considered sufficient to pay a monthly mortgage payment but not enough to qualify for a traditional loan. A minimum of 250 hours of “sweat equity” volunteer hours also are required. Credit and payment history are considered as well.
Tarron Smith, 32, bought her $170,000 Habitat home two blocks from Patterson Park in November 2011 while she was a graduate student at Towson University studying early childhood education. She’s now an elementary teacher at a public school in West Baltimore, and owning her home with an affordable monthly mortgage of $730 has helped her establish a strong foundation for her future.
“It’s amazing to watch Habitat build up so many communities,” said Smith, who lives with her fiance, Darian Dyson, and their year-and-half-old daughter. “They’re giving so many people a piece of Baltimore City just like they gave me.”
In Mount Winans, Robinson, who lives on South Paca Street a few blocks from new Habitat homes, said the white, beige and gray vinyl-sided homes surrounded by trees and a suburban calm will make “marvelous” homes.
“Everyone that I bring to this community falls in love with it,” Robinson said.