Strengthening city's middle neighborhoods

March 28, 2002|By Timothy D. Armbruster

THINK FOR a minute about the kind of neighborhood you would like to live in and why you would move there.

There's a good chance your reasons will include convenience, style and amenities. Most of us wind up living in what urban experts call "a community of choice."

Baltimore has a number of thriving communities of choice. With just a little financial help, some vision and - especially - energetic, committed neighbors, there can be many more.

But if you relied on the media's view of Baltimore's 300-plus neighborhoods, you would think there were only two extremes: the upscale locales, such as Canton, Fells Point, Guilford and Roland Park, where housing values are on the rise, and the inner-city areas, where social and economic problems are so advanced the housing market is nonexistent and redevelopment requires massive subsidies.

Yet arrayed across the city is a large number of communities that, while struggling, offer excellent housing values and special features that make them attractive.

The problem is that residents, despite their best intentions, get discouraged. They lose faith in their neighborhoods' future prospects.

It may not take much to turn this situation around. The level of investment to showcase a neighborhood's best qualities isn't large, and residents already care deeply about improving their surroundings.

What's lacking are public policies that explicitly recognize the importance of these "neighborhoods in the middle."

Last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced an experiment called Healthy Neighborhoods. It provides low-cost home-rehab financing and educates residents on how to stimulate their housing markets and highlight what is most appealing about their communities. The approach is being tested in parts of Reservoir Hill, Patterson Park, the Garrison Boulevard-Gwynns Falls Parkway vicinity (Garwyn Oaks), Belair-Edison, the Coppin State area, Midtown (Calvert and Biddle streets) and Ednor Gardens.

Garwyn Oaks, with its large frame houses, lawns and tree-lined streets, is a good example of how a few simple steps can improve an older neighborhood.

The community association actively promotes Garwyn Oaks' strong points to prospective home-buyers, holds home maintenance workshops to encourage residents to stay and regularly brings neighbors together to discuss government housing services and to exchange ideas.

Last summer, 12 homeowners used part of a two-year, $20,000 foundation grant to replace tattered latticework with white plastic strips to spruce up their block.

A positive attitude can be contagious. When a new resident pulled out her old shrubbery, her neighbor put in new bushes and plants, too. Healthy Neighborhoods, meanwhile, is providing second mortgages at low interest rates for other home improvements.

This same approach proved a success in Battle Creek, Mich., during the 1990s. David Boehlke, an urban development expert who brought Healthy Neighborhoods to Baltimore, focused on increasing housing values in Battle Creek through modest physical improvements and encouraging residents to work together to build upon their neighborhoods' assets.

After eight years, housing prices in targeted neighborhoods nearly tripled; more than 500 homes were purchased and improved; 100 vacant houses were rehabbed or replaced by landscaped yards, green spaces or parks. Whole blocks received paint jobs, new lighting and renovations. In all, $17 million in loans was made to Battle Creek homeowners, much of it provided by the Kellogg Foundation.

As Battle Creek's experience demonstrates, Healthy Neighborhoods in Baltimore can be far more than a promising pilot program. It offers a markedly different - and less expensive - way to allocate scarce resources and improve the places where we live. In short order, this approach could take root in communities across the city.

It's a strategy that pays attention to the positive aspects of sound-but-struggling neighborhoods and won't put a huge financial strain on City Hall.

By emphasizing steps to increase housing values and greater citizen involvement, it becomes easier to attract capital from financial institutions, corporations and foundations. The first two years of Baltimore's Healthy Neighborhoods has attracted commitments of nearly $12 million, two-thirds of it from private sources such as the Goldseker Foundation, which has invested $360,000 so far. As the program develops, it is expected that city funds will represent no more than 20 percent of its costs.

Healthy Neighborhoods allows more residents to create home equity, build wealth and acquire their piece of the American dream. No one loses in a strategy that produces flexible, wise investment in middle-class neighborhoods that are Baltimore's greatest strength and on whose success this city's future rests.

Timothy D. Armbruster is president and chief executive officer of the Goldseker Foundation.

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