Project puts Penn North residents in own homes 'Nehemiah' serves as community model

October 07, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

At a hearing in City Hall recently, a woman who had sat quietly for several minutes approached Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"I've come to congratulate you," said the woman, who lives in the Penn North community of West Baltimore. "Nehemiah has been great for our neighborhood."

Nehemiah was the Hebrew leader who organized the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and thus the name is an appropriate one for a housing project that has sprung up in West Baltimore's Penn-North neighborhood, an area plagued by crumbling houses, crumbling families and, sometimes, crumbling drug deals.

In the space of a few short months, Nehemiah has transformed what had been a vast, abandoned bus parking lot in the midst of squalor into a community of green lawns, clean streets, proud homeowners and conversations over the back fence.

Joseph S. Davis, who bought a house in the 1500 block of Retreat Street, is among the 68 individuals and families who have moved into the new development, which was nothing more than a gently sloping field only eight months ago.

Mr. Davis, a semi-retired maintenance worker who had rented all of his life, said that for the first time he feels that his house is his own and that he is willing to work hard to keep it up.

He is helping to organize the community association and is already planning improvements to his own home: A new club basement should be in place by next year. And he is much more concerned about how his house and yard look than he was about the house he rented on McCulloh Street.

"Man, you could have made a Tarzan movie in there, the grass was so tall," Mr. Davis said of his old yard. "Now, I don't keep dishes in the sink, and don't tell me there's a spot on the floor."

The housing was built by the Enterprise Nehemiah Development Inc., a partnership between a coalition of churches known as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) and the Columbia- based Enterprise Development Co.

City officials and neighborhood leaders hope that building a large block of homes that are affordable to low-income families will give people who might never have had a stake in their neighborhoods a reason to organize alley cleanups, block watch groups and other activities to make the neighborhood a pleasant place to live.

Already there are signs the approach is working.

Although the area surrounding the new homes is littered with broken wine bottles, rotting garbage and weed-choked vacant lots, the streets along which the new homes are built have a suburban spotlessness about them.

The houses are arranged so that their backyards form a courtyard in which children can play. Several people who bought houses and are involved in the community association are receiving advice in organizing techniques from BUILD.

"I've been impressed by the resourcefulness with which they have attacked the issues," said William H. Bennett Jr., a BUILD organizer who is advising the community association.

The units were built from prefabricated houses that were literally dropped onto their foundations by cranes; the price of each was held to $38,500 through subsidies from the city, state and federal governments. Mortgage payments range from $286 to $375 per month, depending on the size of the down payment and other factors.

That is affordable to the prison guards, bus drivers, janitors and other moderate-income individuals living there, people who want a piece of the American dream but who cannot afford the price of suburban living.

Many homeowners are single parents with incomes as low as $18,000, people who might never have been able to make the transition from renter to homeowner.

A larger sister project -- one with about 230 houses -- is being built a short distance away across North Avenue in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

The Sandtown project, which will not be complete until early 1993, was designed with the idea that new housing alone is not enough to uplift a neighborhood.

In that spirit, the city has begun to focus a number of social programs in the Sandtown-Winchester community -- such as a prenatal care program in which canvassers recruited from the neighborhood go door-to-door urging pregnant woman to seek medical attention.

A third, smaller Nehemiah project -- this one with 28 homes -- is planned for Cherry Hill.

The problems surrounding the new community in Penn North are formidable. Poverty haunts the area, and drug runners loiter in the afternoon heat across from the new houses. "You wanna go, you trying to go?" one of them asked a visitor to the new community, offering drugs.

But organizers working with the project are hoping that the determination that allowed the new residents to buy their homes can also be harnessed to address problems in the surrounding community.

Some residents have already begun to help people living nearby. Mary Malachi, one of the most active of the new homeowners, said a cleanup effort organized by the new homeowners was duplicated by people living in one of the blocks bordering the new houses.

"We don't want to be a community by ourselves," Ms. Malachi said. "We want to be part of the larger community."

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