Taking charge Hybrid: Residents of Alameda Place seem like any homeowners -- except they don't own their homes.

November 10, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Thirteen years ago, when Alameda Place existed as nothing more than an idea borrowed from West Germany, the first residents came together for the promise of a stake in the neighborhood, a chance to live among people they knew and a structured system in which everyone pitches in.

Today, on 10 acres tucked off Cold Spring Lane in Northeast Baltimore, residents of the 97 neat, brick townhouses of Alameda Place seem like any homeowners -- except they don't own their homes. But they don't answer to a landlord, either.

Instead, they live in a once highly experimental form of affordable housing, in what was a first-of-its kind development in the United States known as mutual housing.

"We are our own landlords," says Ozella Richardson, a retired neighborhood center director and resident since 1984. "The residents take on some responsibility. People have the feeling they have something invested in the community. When you have an investment, you want to protect your investment."

In a hybrid that blends elements of owning and renting and has since spread across the nation, residents pay a one-time, refundable membership fee, and then monthly fees to a resident-run association -- typically far less than payments needed to buy a home. In return for affordable rents, residents agree to do some of their own maintenance and volunteer on committees that might cut grass in the common areas, set the community's budget or welcome new residents.

Unlike other forms of mutually owned housing, such as a condo or cooperative, a mutual housing association exists primarily to develop, own and manage affordable housing, protect residents against displacement and, ultimately, preserve neighborhoods.

Last week, the private, nonprofit developer of Alameda Place, Mutual Housing Association of Baltimore Inc., took a step toward its goal of developing 500 homes in the Baltimore area by breaking ground on its second project, the 37-unit Monastery Gardens in Irvington.

Monastery Gardens will operate much like Alameda Place, which is governed by a board of trustees elected by Mutual Housing Association members -- the residents. The board includes both residents and nonresidents, including city government and housing officials, people from the business sector and residents of other communities.

Alameda Place has three paid staff members: a manager, a secretary and a maintenance worker. A residents' council monitors community activities, such as a neighborhood watch program.

Another nine resident committees oversee various activities. Members of one committee, for instance, inspect yards to check that grass is cut and shrubbery trimmed. Others oversee association-owned tools and equipment that residents can borrow.

Residents who miss monthly fee payments must go before the delinquent review committee, which tries to help residents work through their problems. This has proved an especially effective way of dealing with late payments, said Richardson, a committee member.

"I don't know of any person who has come before the [delinquent review] committee to come back again -- they don't want to face their neighbors," she said.

The new development, at Old Frederick Road and Loudon Avenue, is expected to open by August.

Two years in the planning stage, it will mark a first of its own -- taking in public housing residents. As part of a city plan to scatter some of the housing that will replace demolished public high-rise buildings, Monastery Gardens has reserved 11 of the 37 units for public housing residents.

"They will be treated like market-rate [residents], screened and required to pay a membership fee," said Donna Poggi Keck, director of special needs and replacement housing for the Housing Authority. Federal subsidies will cover the balance of monthly fees after residents pay 30 percent of their income, she said.

"Public housing is moving in the direction of being developed in scattered sites," Keck said. "This is a product of the community's willingness to support us."

But community support, for mutual housing in general, hasn't always come so easily.

Last week, as construction crews broke ground for Monastery Gardens on the former site of an elementary school, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke recalled how Alameda Place, in Govans, initially sparked heavy opposition.

"When we first started here, we had a terrible time trying to get in the community because the community was thinking in terms of subsidized units, and they fought against it," said Charles M. Thomas, president of Mutual Housing's board of trustees.

"But after the construction, everybody was saying, 'What was the big deal? Why didn't we have this before?' " Schmoke said, calling Monastery Gardens the fulfillment of a dream for the Irvington community and the city.

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