Bouncing Back

June 12, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Staff Writer

For years, the 900 block of N. Lakewood Ave. in East Baltimore has sat weed-choked and vacant, near an auto repair shop and rows of brick garages with flat roofs and weather-beaten doors.

Residents of two-story rowhouses in the racially mixed neighborhood east of Johns Hopkins Hospital had convinced the city to tear down rat-infested garages and clear away junk cars. But longtime owners of homes across the street and elsewhere in the neighborhood could only watch helplessly as tenants west of the vacant lot abandoned apartments and as loiterers and drug dealers took over street corners.

"Coming west, things started to get pretty bad. We wanted to stop the area from really going down," said Mitchell Henderson, a 23-year resident and president of Madison East End Improvement Association.

Mr. Henderson began a drive to build affordable, for-sale houses on Lakewood, teaming his community group with an at-first reluctant Harford County homebuilder, the block's owner. But for a decade, problems of building in the inner city stalled the project.

Today, Mr. Henderson looks in amazement at the activity on North Lakewood. Construction workers have begun the first 10 of what Mr. Henderson hopes eventually will be 20 new townhouses. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was to join residents yesterday at a ceremony marking the start of a project in which private and nonprofit developers secured money from federal, state and city governments.

By fall, families with incomes of $18,000 to $27,500 can move in, with no down payment, $2,200 toward closing costs and monthly payments of $450. Private builder Manning L. Klepsig is constructing the two-story, 1,680-square-foot homes with basements, brick fronts, three bedrooms and one bath and rear off-street parking.

The $847,700 project is partially financed by a $400,000 construction loan through NationsBank and $277,700 in block grants. The block grants subsidize mortgages, bringing them to $55,000. The state Community Development Administration has $550,000 available for 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages at 5 percent interest.

For two years, potential buyers have waited for the homes, which should be complete by fall. Most of two dozen applicants now rent homes in the neighborhood, said Ida Wyatt, owner of Homecoming Realty, the agency taking applications.

Helping more low- and moderate-income buyers own their own homes will help stabilize the neighborhood, "bringing the neighborhood up west of Lakewood and preventing it from going down east of Lakewood," Mr. Henderson said.

"I'm overwhelmed by what's going on," he said. "It's a brand new start for the community. It's going to start people taking a second look at their neighborhood."

When a split with his partner left Mr. Klepsig with the property 10 years ago, the improvement association approached the builder about putting up homes. Absentee landlords who let properties run down were becoming more prevalent in the neighborhood bounded by Milton Avenue, Eager Street, Edison Highway and Monument Street.

Mr. Klepsig tore down garages on the site and began development plans, going as far as subdividing, preparing the ,, site, hiring engineers to draw plans and getting construction permit approval. But he couldn't afford to build homes at a cost of $85,000 in a neighborhood that could only support sales at half the price.

Federal Urban Development Block Grant money that would have subsidized mortgages fell through, and the project stalled. Years passed as the parcel sat vacant. By 1991, when a city planner and the community association once again pushed to develop the site, Mr. Klepsig felt reluctant to take on a project in the city. He hoped someone else would develop it.

In 10 years building in Harford County, at a pace of about five or six single-family homes a year, "as a private builder, I'm only restricted by my own means. Other than local building regulations, I build what I want, where I want and sell it for what I want."

But building affordable housing in the city would be "too complicated, with too much bureaucracy and take more time than I could devote to it," he said. He changed his mind after forming an alliance with Southeast Development Inc. The nonprofit provider of affordable housing, part of Southeast Community Organization, was able to get a Community Development Block Grant to subsidize mortgages.

Mr. Klepsig said he saw "the potential of something concrete being done. No one wanted to talk to me about city financing and mortgages on a for-profit basis."

But he says it hasn't been easy. The process has taken him through a maze of rules set by city, state and federal agencies providing funding and mortgages. No less a hurdle has been finding a private lender willing to invest in the inner city, he said.

"This is an unusual project of this small a size where a builder is working with a nonprofit and the neighborhood," said Janet Byers, president of Southeast Community Organization. "We hope it's a first step in helping the neighborhood plan future projects."

Mr. Henderson hopes it will lead to more redevelopment. He would like to see vacant buildings on a parcel east of Lakewood developed into a multipurpose center for teen-agers. And he hopes Mr. Klepsig or another builder will pursue building another 10 townhouses on the Lakewood site, although no money has yet been made available for that.

"I think it will help the community as a whole," said Mr. Klepsig, originally from East Baltimore. "It only takes one [property] in a block to start improving, and then it gets everyone else moving."

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