Midtown and Belair-Edison aren't the kind of Baltimore neighborhoods usually targeted for public dollars, but a $9.6 million program announced yesterday will give residents there and those in other successful neighborhoods a pool of money for home improvements and other assistance.
The Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative is designed to promote homeownership in broad areas of the city that fall between the affluence of Homeland and the poverty of Harlem Park. Each of the six selected "healthy neighborhoods" have active citizens groups and few if any abandoned houses.
Nearly two dozen public agencies, banks and foundations contributed to the program, which is expected to operate for at least two years. Mayor Martin O'Malley, who announced the program yesterday on a grassy field in Herring Run Park, said it represents a change in the city's approach.
Formerly, the most distressed areas of the city garnered the great majority of support, while decline in other sections went unnoticed, said O'Malley.
"We were ignoring two-thirds of our neighborhoods when it came to housing policies," he said. "We're going to build out from our strengths."
In all, 18 neighborhood groups applied for the program. Each sent representatives to orientation meetings held in August at the Baltimore Community Foundation. They also presented proposals for neighborhood improvements. The city Department of Housing and Community Development selected 10 finalists and recommended six to O'Malley.
The mayor's selections --- Belair-Edison, Midtown, Patterson Park, Reservoir Hill, the area immediately south of Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore and the neighborhood around Garrison Boulevard and Gwynns Falls Parkway - were divided among the east, west and central parts of the city.
"From now on, our public investments have to be strategic," said O'Malley, noting what he calls an era of "limited public dollars."
"We are going to put the resources where we can get the benefit from them," he said.
The selection process began in August, shortly after O'Malley announced the winners of the $1.5 million Main Street program, jointly financed by the city and state. Five neighborhoods were selected for that program, which is aimed at revitalizing commercial districts.
The lead community organizations in the Healthy Neighborhoods program will be eligible for up to $50,000 in operating costs. Each neighborhood also will have a $300,000 pool of low-interest loans for residents interested in rehabilitating or renovating their homes. The program also calls for teaching first-time homebuyers the intricacies of the market to protect them from predatory lenders.
"The basic premise is [that] the city has a lot of strong neighborhoods that could use some sprucing up," said Barbara Aylesworth, executive director of Belair-Edison Neighborhood Inc. in Northeast Baltimore.
Aylesworth described Belair-Edison as "a quintessential neighborhood on the edge." It has had a problem with "flipping," a real estate practice in which a home is bought and quickly resold for at least a 100 percent increase with little or no repairs made to the property.
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who also attended yesterday's announcement, said federal money will be provided to combat flipping.
The initiative is modeled on a successful program in Battle Creek, Mich. Baltimore's efforts began last year through a partnership between The Baltimore Community Foundation and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, two nonprofit groups that promote neighborhood projects.
Representatives of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) criticized the mayor's plan, saying the money should be spent in neighborhoods that really need help, such as Walbrook, Rosemont and Park Heights.
Norma C. Washington, chairman of ACORN's Maryland chapter, said: "When they told me about the healthy neighborhoods I said, `Look. What's the point? The city wants to put money in neighborhoods that don't need any help.' "
Tony White, the mayor's spokesman, said the neighborhoods in the initiative do need help to remain viable and appealing to residents and prospective home buyers. "The reason for making these awards is to stem the decline of these neighborhoods," he said.