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Bloomberg didn’t call, but someone else did. Now there’s hope for container houses on Holbrook Street in East Baltimore. | COMMENTARY

An illustration by Baltimore architect Jay Orr suggest what Hope Village, a development of small homes made from converted shipping containers, might look like when completed.
An illustration by Baltimore architect Jay Orr suggest what Hope Village, a development of small homes made from converted shipping containers, might look like when completed. (ARQ Architects)

I call them the Green Mount Prairies — dozens of grassy vacant lots along East Hoffman Street on the south side of Green Mount Cemetery, the final resting place of many notable Baltimoreans who, having lived in a bustling city of 900,000, would be shocked at all the abandonment around them.

But, with all due respect to our departed aristos, the Baltimore of 2020 is what it is — a city of just under 600,000 souls who yearn for the insane violence to end and the next renaissance to begin. Our City of Perpetual Recovery is way overdue for one. And yet, to imagine that under present circumstances seems as futile as it is wishful.

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Still, one must always hope, and today’s meanderings are about hope.

So, back to the Green Mount Prairies.

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Green space in an old city is wonderful, even if it was not by design. Over the last 50 years, the city acquired hundreds of rowhouses that had been abandoned by their owners. Some were saved, stabilized and sold to urban pioneers. Many others were torn down. Soon grass grew on vacant lots and trees sprung up. This seemed to be the case along Hoffman Street in East Baltimore, an area once home to thousands of Irish and German immigrants.

Several years ago, I had a revelation: If one could ignore how it happened — that thousands of white families had abandoned the city (in big numbers after school desegregation commenced in the 1950s) — then one could appreciate the Green Mount Prairies. Turns out that the legacy of white flight, in some places, is green space. For several blocks running, I found grass and trees and sometimes a community garden. There was even green space on the side streets, including a narrow one called Holbrook, which is where today’s meander takes us.

Readers might recall a call out in this column to the billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

In February, I suggested that the former mayor of New York City and Johns Hopkins University graduate and benefactor consider investing millions of his billions in Baltimore’s vacant but still stable rowhouses. Bringing rowhouses back to life would bring more neighborhoods back to life and push out crime.

Most importantly, Bloomberg’s millions would meet one of the city’s biggest challenges — the lack of housing for families of modest means, many of them headed by women who devote a large chunk of monthly income to rent.

I suggested that, if he wanted to ease himself into the Baltimore housing market, Bloomberg could connect with Pamela and Christian Wilson, a Charles Village couple who, after retirement from careers in the maritime industry, established a nonprofit, Heart’s Place Services Inc., to do good.

The Wilsons had an idea. They wanted to convert surplus shipping containers into modest homes for small families in need of housing.

That might sound odd, but container homes are a thing now. Across the country, people have turned 40-foot cargo containers into small homes, second homes, cottages, cabanas, even office space. The designs range from merely functional to architecturally cool.

The Wilsons had a plan to create what they called Hope Village, a small development of container homes. They spent a couple of years looking for help, including from City Hall, but got nowhere. By February, they had pretty much given up on the idea. “We couldn’t get any builder to work with us on the refurbishing of containers into houses,” Christian Wilson said.

I found that unfortunate because, given the number of low-income families seeking stable domicile, given our proximity to the Port of Baltimore and a ready supply of shipping containers, the Wilsons' idea made sense.

So I called out to Bloomberg. He didn’t respond, but someone else did.

Mark Sapperstein, a prominent and busy developer of retail and residential properties in Baltimore, met with the Wilsons, looked at their plans and decided it could be done. He calculated each container conversion at between $43,000 and $45,000 and offered financial help to make the homes affordable for needy families.

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“It will be a fun project for a good cause,” Sapperstein says.

Working with a national nonprofit, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, and the Bank of America, the Wilsons hope to be able to sell the homes, fully furnished, for as little as $25,000. Christian Wilson says the balance of the cost will be covered by Sapperstein and Heart’s Place Services, with assistance from the Baltimore City Youth Fund.

On Sept. 2, the city Board of Estimates approved the sale of 27 lots of Holbrook Street, at $1,000 per lot, to the Wilsons' nonprofit.

The lots are narrower than usual, Sapperstein says, so the plan is to put each container home on two of them. The 13 homes will be detached. Each will have a wraparound porch and a small yard.

The Wilsons are shopping for containers now. Architect Jay Orr is working up new design plans. Chesapeake Contracting Group has offered to donate the interior retrofitting. Volunteers led by financial planner Anne London are raising funds for furnishings.

Once they get some schooling in money management, the new owners will find a living room, full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and basic appliances. “And a closet,” says Pamela Wilson. “Each home will be fully furnished. They can cook their own meals, wash their own clothes. The idea is to give them a sense of accomplishment and pride.”

And hope.

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