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What the bruised billionaire Bloomberg could build in Baltimore | COMMENTARY

This two-story Los Angeles home was constructed from surplus shipping containers. A more modest, one-story design has been proposed by a philanthropic couple addressing the need for affordable housing in Baltimore.
This two-story Los Angeles home was constructed from surplus shipping containers. A more modest, one-story design has been proposed by a philanthropic couple addressing the need for affordable housing in Baltimore.(Shelby Knick)

It’s not too late for Michael Bloomberg to help the homeless. Considering the way things went for him in the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night, the bruised billionaire might want to reconsider how he spends his many disposable millions.

I offer four suggestions: Back the party’s ultimate nominee for president; back Democratic candidates for the Senate and House; buy 5,000 vacant houses in Baltimore and convert them into affordable homes; meet Christian and Pamela Wilson for a cup of coffee and consider helping them revive their plans to turn cargo containers from the Port of Baltimore into affordable homes.

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I realize Bloomberg, a Johns Hopkins University alum, already gave a chunk of his wealth to his Baltimore alma mater, including $1.8 billion just for scholarships for low- and middle-income students. That’s huge.

But this city has a lot of problems, and a big one is lack of affordable domiciles. We have thousands of people, many of them the working poor, who spend too much of their income on rent. The waiting list for public housing stands at about 14,000 applications, and the city’s housing authority has stopped taking new ones. Programs for federal rent subsidies also have been curtailed.

According to a 2017 survey, we have more than 2,600 homeless people on any given night, a “point in time” estimate that likely under-counts the real number. Plus, Dr. Ben Carson is still, inexplicably, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in an administration that keeps proposing deep cuts to affordable housing programs. Carson, the former brain surgeon, thinks the answer to homelessness is for faith-based organizations to do more.

If elected president, Bloomberg ― or any Democrat, for that matter ― would likely get the government behind more housing and community development.

But Bloomberg could also achieve wonderful things with his own money.

For starters, he could spend $500 million, a mere fraction of his fortune, to acquire and renovate 5,000 vacant houses in Baltimore. He could sell them at cost to people who qualify for the various low-interest mortgage programs that big banks are offering to make up for their sleazy lending practices of the past. That would be huge. It would be transformative.

If that’s too ambitious ― for a man worth an estimated $60 billion, I don’t know why it would be ― Bloomberg could help Pamela and Christian Wilson with their housing project.

As I reported in this space a couple of years ago, this Charles Village couple retired from careers in maritime insurance to a life of philanthropy in Baltimore.

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They established a weekend food program for low-income families that is now in 12 city schools. The Wilsons have collected and given away thousands of winter coats. Shocked at the housing challenges that Baltimore’s poorest families face, they took on a third project — turning steel shipping containers into houses.

This is not some wacko idea. Across the country, people have purchased surplus containers and turned them into small homes and cottages. Many have design flourishes and cool amenities.

But the Wilsons were not looking to make Architectural Digest. They just wanted to use container homes to shelter the homeless or help low-income Baltimoreans buy a modest house.

The Wilsons proposed turning 40-foot containers into 280-square-foot, one-bedroom homes on some of the city’s many vacant lots. They had architect Jay Orr draw up floor plans for a row of container conversions.

It was a good idea. It’s still a good idea.

But after two and a half years of trying to find a local builder to help with the project, the Wilsons have given up.

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“Baltimore is a very conservative city, and therefore we couldn’t get any builder to work with us on the refurbishing of containers into houses,” Christian Wilson says. “I can’t tell you how many builders we sat down with, and we would have a conversation, and they all said it was a good idea and a noble cause and logical, and that they’d get back with a quote.”

But many never bothered to do that, and some said they just did not want to take on the project. A company in York, Pennsylvania, wanted more than $100,000 for each conversion. That’s close to four times what the Wilsons believed each unit should cost to frame, insulate and outfit with a bathroom and small kitchen.

The Wilsons had done their research and made plans they considered sound. But they lacked an angel — some big-hearted contractor willing to build container homes and not fear their low cost would undercut his other residential projects in the city.

It’s possible the Wilsons will come back to the idea some day.

Right now, they are focused on a new project.

Last year, they scouted what I call the Green Mount Prairies, the grassy vacant lots in East Baltimore to the south of Green Mount Cemetery. They hope to place modular homes on six lots of Holbrook Street and sell them for between $45,000 and $50,000 each. The Wilsons are still in the process of settling on the city-owned land. They hope to help prospective homeowners with special financing that could keep monthly mortgage payments below $320.

The Wilsons have donors and supporters. But they could use a sugar daddy.

So Mike, you’re probably still aching from the debate. You’re probably feeling underappreciated. I’ve got a remedy for that: Give more of your money to a good cause. If interested, have your peeps call mine.

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