Armistead Gardens ready to experiment

Community: Proposed as public housing, it became a co-op and now members want to sell 65 fix-up units at cost.

August 03, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

With blocks and blocks of barrackslike buildings, Armistead Gardens is a throwback to World War II, when it was home to an army of out-of-town workers toiling in Baltimore's defense manufacturers.

The 169-acre complex next to Herring Run Park in East Baltimore later became an unusual nonprofit housing cooperative.

The 1,518-unit development is about to launch a bold experiment: It will sell 65 fix-up vacant units at cost.

Some homes could go for as little as $5,000, predicted Leon Bonnell, a retired Sparrows Point worker and Armistead Gardens official.

"Where can you go in Baltimore City or Baltimore County and get anything that cheap?" he said.

Details of the "homesteading" arrangement remain to be worked out by the cooperative board. But the idea is for the cooperative to do minimal repairs and seek bids on vacant units to recoup the costs. Successful buyers would have a year to complete rehabbing at their own expense.

If the experiment is successful, 85 other vacant properties might be offered under a similar deal.

Bonnell said the housing corporation had bought or repossessed those units over the years, planning to modernize them. But with escalating maintenance costs, it has run out of money and cannot afford to do extensive repairs.

Armistead Gardens, northeast of Pulaski Highway and Erdman Avenue, has long been among Baltimore's rock-bottom housing bargains. It's virtually impossible to spend more than $40,000 there to buy a four-bedroom unit. (A monthly fee of about $270 is extra, but it covers not only maintenance but also utilities and taxes.)

Many relatives nearby

"We've got people with plenty of money and people who ain't got nothing," said Bonnell, who has lived in Armistead Gardens 54 of his 79 years and has no fewer than 25 relatives living within walking distance.

Janice Lillard moved to Armistead Gardens 41 years ago and has no intention of moving.

"I don't want to live anywhere else," she said.

Over the past six decades, many outsiders have looked down on Lillard's modest neighborhood of laborers, sales and service personnel and retirees. The community's median household income is $25,100 a year.

Such snobbishness does not bother her. "It's not where you live but how you live," she said.

When it was proposed in the late 1930s, Armistead Gardens was to be public housing. The plan triggered angry demonstrations by people who feared that federal financing was a ploy to bring blacks to an all-white neighborhood.

Nevertheless, the complex was built with the intention of serving as public housing.

But World War II intervened, and Armistead Gardens was commandeered as a segregated temporary domicile for hundreds of whites. Most were from the Appalachia region stretching from West Virginia to Tennessee, having trekked to Baltimore to work at Glenn L. Martin Co. and other key defense plants. In the mid-1950s, the federal government sold the development to a newly created nonprofit housing cooperative.

Under that arrangement, Armistead Gardens residents do not own homes outright. Instead, they own a share of the cooperative, which entitles them to a unit as leaseholders and gives them voting rights in electing the governing board.

The deal comes with strict strings: As a condition of membership application, prospective buyers must agree to be fingerprinted and pass a criminal background check.

If owners decide to sell, they have to offer units back to the cooperative. If the cooperative does not want them, the owners can seek outside buyers.

Armistead Gardens has many faces. Some streets have so many modernized houses they would not be out of place in older suburban areas, while some narrow alleys are straight out of the 1940s. And even though the architectural style is basically barrackslike, many families have spent lots of money for alterations to break the design monotony. Exterior treatments also vary -- brick, cinder-block, shingles, vinyl siding and even Formstone.

For a long time, some of the vast social changes of the 1960s bypassed Armistead Gardens. In 1988, the community was embroiled in a dispute because one black family had been permitted to purchase a home there in its 47-year history.

These days, Armistead Gardens is buffeted by changes. At least 100 Hispanic families, many from the Dominican Republic, have acquired homes there, presenting cultural and racial challenges.

"When I moved to Armistead Gardens, there were only three or four Hispanics there. Now you see them everywhere," said Juana Blancarte of her experiences over the past eight years. A teacher to immigrants, she was born in Los Angeles and is of Mexican extraction.

Last year, the First Bilingual Christian Church bought the old Teamsters Building, at 6000 Erdman Ave., and holds services there. At Armistead Gardens Elementary School, 41 of 293 pupils were Hispanic this past academic year.

Selling two houses

Robin Skeen, who grew up in Armistead Gardens, sold two homes there in the past six months after her family moved to Cecil County. In both cases, the buyers came "from the South," she said.

"For some reason, the foreign people have the cash," she said. "I guess we spend too much."

Having cash is important because mortgages are difficult to obtain for cooperatives, and few sellers are willing to provide financing for the deals.

For the cooperative, the "homesteading" approach represents a change in strategy. Its biggest successes have been in marketing overhauled units.

In the past, whenever such units, priced at about $36,000, have become available, potential purchasers have started lining up outside the cooperative's office as early as 2 a.m.

"It's a good deal," Bonnell said.

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