Banking on buying a block

Plan: A collective of young people is on a quest to own homes in Baltimore -- and the quest is gaining momentum.

February 26, 2003|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Adam Meister has an idea.

An idea that sets off animated dinner table conversations. That beguiles sensible housing experts. That tempts his peers and worries their parents.

He is leading a collective of would-be homeowners committed to sweat equity and the renaissance of Baltimore neighborhoods where drug dealers stage-whispering "Yellow tops! Yellow tops!" are the only signs of industry. The plan is to buy a dozen homes on a deteriorated block and transform it into an oasis of sparkling windows, polished marble and leafy sidewalks.

That Meister and his comrades are for the most part young, inexperienced and broke is not, to them, a drawback. It adds appeal to an idea based on the power of ordinary people willing to attempt extraordinary things.

Even no-nonsense veterans of community redevelopment wars -- such as Timothy D. Armbruster, president and chief executive officer of the Goldseker Foundation -- are intrigued.

Most important, however, Meister's idea appears to be gaining momentum among a niche of enterprising people any city would welcome: young, educated suburbanites brimming with energy and earning potential -- and a hankering to become Baltimore's newest taxpayers.

What began as a trickle of inquiries into techbalt.com, Meister's Web version of his Buy-a-Block idea, has become a small flood. Piqued by ads online, in poetry zines and in fliers distributed at hip midtown bars, dozens have crowded into monthly information meetings at local library branches to hear the pitch:

"You'll know your neighbor beforehand. You'll form a bond with them all at once. You're coming to meetings beforehand. You're looking out for each other. You'll get discounts on, say, plumbing. This whole thing is about doing it in bulk."

A core group of seven regularly hits the streets in some of the city's hottest crime zones in search of the perfect stretch of rowhouses. They focus on properties within the borders of Fulton Avenue on the west, Druid Hill Park on the north, Green Mount Cemetery to the east and downtown to the south.

Treeless blocks of worn brick, failing Formstone and chipped marble steps only egg them on.

Most Saturdays, they plot from the front room of Meister's Charles Village walk-up. Idealistic and determined, they sprawl on the floor, poring over neighborhood maps, united by a willingness to bet on a city they might just as easily overlook.

"This is no pipe dream," says Meister. "We're trying to do a revolution. We're trying to start a tidal wave."

The setting for Meister's tsunami is a city whose housing prices make homebuyers in Chicago and Seattle envious.

Last year, the average sale price inched past the $100,000 mark. To transplanted urban professionals and retirees gravitating toward city life, that's a bargain. To a roomful of people in their 20s who stretch foot-in-the-door salaries with pot-luck dinners and living with roommates, the prices are as much of a barrier to home ownership as a wrecking ball.

No affordable options

"Some of us have already looked for houses here, but there's no way we could buy in Canton or Federal Hill," said Chris Montgomery, 24, a computer technician who works at Anne Arundel Community College and is among the group's most reliable supporters.

Joining forces might enable them to buy homes in a seriously depressed area of town for, say, $10,000 each, instead of the $100,000 similar houses might command in a less blighted area. Beyond cost, though, is the chance to form a ready-made community of like-minded neighbors.

"When people meet us, they realize that we're not an imperious bunch of gentrifiers," explained Steve Peterson, who at 26 would rather be teaching undergraduate English than working at the Kinko's near the Johns Hopkins University. "We're a neighborhood association in search of a neighborhood."

Other techbalt.com-ers include Megan Ryan, 29, a trained chef who commutes from Hampden to teach at a Baltimore County elementary school. She is the most articulate about what the group doesn't want to achieve.

"We're not looking to carve out the next new Yuppieville, or be cowboys," she said.

William Sulima, 26, works two jobs, by day as a contractor for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and at night at a pub. Matthew Pedersen, 22, is a maintenance worker at a Washington apartment building who lives with his family in Prince George's County but dreams of becoming a Baltimore police officer.

"My goal is to live in the city where I patrol," Pedersen said.

Elizabeth Saylor, 27, who works on an early childhood development initiative in Park Heights, talks of "the common goal of wanting to own homes and realizing that our positive choices may make a positive change for the city."

Now the group is focused on untangling the seemingly impenetrable web of financial and legal issues that stand between the idea and moving day:

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