It is hard to say which happened first in the condominium neighborhoods off Pioneer Drive -- the plunge in property values or the emergence of drug trafficking and crime that now stigmatizes the community.
But there is no question that owners who bought into the Severn community, built in the 1960s and 1970s for affordable homeownership, have watched the value of their investments decline over the past decade.
Many have sold out to investors who paid deflated prices, then turned two-story, brick-front townhouses into rental units. One area real estate agent said she knew of investors who bought properties for as little as $1 from owners desperate to unload them.
Two county nonprofit agencies are looking to make homeowners of renters and get rid of investor-owners.
Homes for America Inc. wants to buy 12 townhouses a year, starting with vacant units, rehabilitate them and sell them, preferably to renters in the neighborhood. And Arundel Community Development Services Inc. (ACDS) is bringing its one-on-one homeownership counseling program, previously centered on Annapolis, to Pioneer Drive. The agency is targeting the neighborhood in marketing the program, but the counseling is also open to others in the county.
Prospective buyers of the Homes for America houses must participate in the ACDS counseling program.
"That's the best news I've heard in a long time," real estate agent Veronica Reynolds of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn said of the rehabilitation and counseling effort. "It's just about impossible to sell homes there."
Reynolds last listed a home in the area about five years ago. She said most sellers feel lucky to get $20,000 for homes that would be worth more than $40,000 in a different neighborhood.
Still, Reynolds and others wonder whether the area can attract buyers, even those already renting in the area.
For one thing, run-down and abandoned homes remain as eyesores among the well-kept units on the courts off Pioneer Drive. In 1995, of 318 units built for individual ownership, 226 were rental units and 92 were owner-occupied, according to an ACDS study.
Officials, residents and real estate observers say owners who bought units cheap to rent them out have little incentive to maintain them and that the whole area has suffered as a result.
Authorities have been taking landlords to court, trying to force them to kick out tenants dealing drugs in the neighborhoods.
Another drawback for prospective homebuyers is that although a Nixon Bus Service bus stops on Pioneer Drive, there is no public transportation and no inexpensive way for residents without cars to get to a grocery store.
"It sounds like it's very much an uphill battle," Norman G. Miller, director of the Real Estate Program at the University of Cincinnati, said of the effort to attract buyers to the area. "No homeowner is going to risk moving in unless they see that there's a trend, and 12 [units] a year is not nearly enough."
But Nadine Larmore, 29, said several fellow residents would welcome the chance to own a home in the neighborhood where they live.
"There are a lot of people who want to be homeowners, but they don't know how," said Larmore, standing on the front steps of the home she bought with her husband, Eugene, five years ago. "They need to know about getting their credit straight first."
People who own the homes they live in would probably care for them better than landlords who don't live in the area, said Larmore, a mother of two who is a caretaker in a group home for the mentally disabled.
Organizers know they have an image problem to overcome in persuading people to buy in the area. Jill Manahan, managing the purchase of homes for Homes for America, hopes that seeing the first finished home will persuade prospective buyers who are in counseling to go ahead.
The homes will be sold at prices buyers can afford, not to #F recover the $50,000 to $55,000 on average that Homes for America expects to spend on each unit, said Chairwoman Trudy McFall.
The average buyer will have a "decent" credit history and earn between $23,000 and $25,000, she said.
Buyers also will get help in straightening out their credit histories and in learning what it takes to purchase a home through the counseling program.
The state Housing and Community Development Department also might offer low-rate mortgages to buyers of the Homes for America houses, said Jesse Alfriend, senior mortgage loan officer in the department's homeownership program. Homes for America, ACDS and department officials will meet next month to discuss that option.
For all the hopes riding on the new efforts, no one knows whether attempts to turn around neighborhoods with homeownership incentives work. The state is just beginning to evaluate the decadelong public-private effort to revitalize Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood with rehabilitated and new affordable housing.
For information on the Pioneer Drive program or in homeownership counseling, call ACDS at 410-222-7615.
Pub Date: 9/30/97