Rebuilding a city, a block at a time

Urban Chronicle

Homesteading: Saturday marks the start of work to turn 22 abandoned houses into a corridor of privately owned residences.

October 30, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

ON SATURDAY, about 200 volunteers are expected to converge on a blighted block in the Barclay-Greenmount neighborhood.

The occasion: Workathon 2003, the annual fund-raiser for the People's Homesteading Group, a 20-year-old nonprofit that converts vacant houses into homes for low- and moderate-income families.

The mission: Clean up a dozen boarded buildings and landscape the immediate area in the 400 block of E. 22nd St., just above North Avenue and just east of city school headquarters.

Organizers hope the event will raise about $10,000 through pledges to volunteer workers - a not insignificant amount for a group with an annual operating budget of less than $500,000. But the main point is not financial but symbolic. Saturday will mark the start of work on 22 abandoned houses People's Homesteading owns or is in the process of acquiring in the 400 and 500 blocks of East 22nd.

"The idea is to create a corridor of homeowners to bring a stabilizing effect to the area," said Michael Mazepink, People's Homesteading's executive director. "If we do 22 units, the whole area will be looked at more seriously for people who want to get a house."

The People's Homesteading project provides a two-block microcosm of how the city is working with neighborhood-based community development corporations to try to revive decayed areas of the city.

Of the 22 properties, seven are owned outright by People's Homesteading. Most of those were bought for nominal fees of $5 or less after city housing lawyers began what they call "strategic code enforcement" of housing violations and the owners decided it would be cost-effective to turn them over to the group rather than correcting the violations themselves.

Another five houses are tax-certificate properties with unpaid liens that the group bought from the city. One is a bricked-up building being donated by the city's housing authority, which has been paring its inventory of vacant scattered-site units. Three are tax-certificate properties being bought from a Washington developer who outbid community groups a year ago in a sealed-bid auction that was part of the city's blight elimination Project 5000 initiative. The remaining six are to be bought directly from private owners or obtained through receivership, a complex legal process for gaining control of abandoned properties that have no tax liens.

Like bigger, more ballyhooed projects, such as the east-side biotech park, the People's Homesteading plan also follows Mayor Martin O'Malley's mantra of building on strength. In this case, it is the St. Ann Roman Catholic Church at 22nd Street and Greenmount Avenue.

The evolution of People's Homesteading's views about redevelopment also mirrors that of city leaders.

For much of its history, the group renovated about five houses a year in neighborhoods scattered throughout the city. As the city did, it concluded a few years back that a piecemeal rehab strategy was ineffective in helping turn around neighborhoods and decided to focus its efforts on an 18-square-block area near its North Avenue headquarters.

In fact, the group's effort on East 22nd Street is part of a larger effort called "Anchors of Hope" in an approximately 20-square-block area that includes greening, a proposed small commercial development and spot rehabs of another dozen units.

But the 400 block of E. 22nd St. marks the first time the group has attempted to revive an entire block.

Despite its 20 derelict properties - including one that is nothing more than a front facade with no walls or roof - the 400 block is an oasis compared to much of the area to its south, where midblock demolitions have left gaps that have been turned into ugly urban dumping grounds. If revival is to occur there, wide-scale tearing down will surely be needed.

Among the assets of the 400 block of E. 22nd St. is a core of civic-minded residents who have placed planters in front of the vacant units.

"You might ask, `Why invest in this block?'" said Mazepink. "The idea is this block is the anchor."

People's Homesteading has money to pay for acquisition and predevelopment costs and is seeking city historic designation for the block, which would make renovations eligible for historic tax credits. It plans to seek city, state and foundation money to close the gap between the projected $150,000 per unit cost of rehabilitation and an anticipated sales price of about half that amount, which would keep the homes affordable to families with low and moderate incomes.

"We have ideas, and we have sources. We don't have commitments," Mazepink said.

He is confident the group will get the money it needs. "Our history is that we're scrappers," he said.

Saturday's Workathon should send a signal that the project is ready to go - to those who live in the area and to those who hold the purse strings.

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