Project seeks to save housing

Nonprofit developer aims to shield low-income city homes from gentrification

December 04, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

For Shirley Dendy, the new furnace and double-pane windows came just in time for winter - insulating her from the cold air that for years slipped through the cracks of her apartment west of Green Mount Cemetery.

"I have 18 windows," said Dendy, who has lived in the subsidized apartment on Guilford Avenue for six years. "I can tell already by my BGE bill that it's doing something."

But both Dendy and city officials hope the renovation of 150 subsidized housing units in the Greenmount West and Barclay neighborhoods will have implications beyond saving electricity. The project will also preserve a slice of Baltimore's low-income housing stock in an area that is being transformed by pricey residential developments.

"There's a lot of gentrification pressure," said Andrew Vincent, project manager for Greater Baltimore AHC, a nonprofit developer that purchased the housing last year. "We felt it was very important that we step in there and preserve this as affordable housing now."

Armed with federal and state tax-exempt loans, the group is expected to invest about $10 million to renovate 130,000 square feet of low-income housing in a neighborhood where property is becoming increasingly expensive. The Station North townhouses, under construction a block away from Dendy's subsidized apartment, start at nearly $400,000.

Making long-overdue repairs - including new furnaces, windows, roofs and electrical work - will not only preserve the homes but also improve the neighborhood, Vincent said. The 139 project-based, Section 8 apartments are located in 80 rowhouses scattered throughout the neighborhood.

"Once they fall behind on those repairs it kind of snowballs," Vincent said. "A lot of these properties do get to the point where it's moved beyond just basic maintenance."

The agreement that kept the properties subsidized was set to expire, meaning the homes could have been sold at market value. Now, no residents will be displaced and Vincent said the apartments will continue to be subsidized for low-income tenants for at least another 20 years.

The city's Board of Estimates approved a $2 million federal loan for the project earlier this month and signed off on an additional $9.7 million in loans and tax credits. According to Board of Estimates documents, the group will receive a developer's fee of just over $1 million.

City officials have celebrated recent progress in the area - north of Mid-Town Belvedere and south of Charles Village - including the Station North development and the conversion of several buildings into loft-studios. A coed Jesuit high school recently announced plans to open in the vacant Mildred Monroe Elementary School on Guilford Avenue.

But some fear that such development will shrink the city's supply of low-income housing. From 2000 to 2004, the share of homes selling for less than $140,000 in the Baltimore region decreased from 45 percent to 15 percent, according to a housing report released this summer. As the housing market has cooled, rental rates have also increased.

Paul T. Graziano, commissioner of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said the project fits into a larger effort to rehabilitate Baltimore's 14,200 Federal Housing Administration-insured housing units. Sometimes that involves stepped up code enforcement and sometimes it requires large-scale redevelopment. Greenmount falls between those extremes.

"We have a vision for these inner city neighborhoods where we're seeing a great location for major investment, and it's already beginning, but it's going to snowball," Graziano said. "What we are doing is ensuring that we are preserving existing affordable housing and creating other affordable housing opportunities."

Dendy said new development priced her out of her home in West Baltimore and forced her to move to Greenmount West. Now she's worried that the same thing might happen in her new neighborhood and she questions whether anyone who is not wealthy will ever be able to give up on renting and purchase their own home in the area.

"I'm very upset about gentrification," she said. "All of sudden, people are coming in."

Baltimore officials are studying how to make more middle- and low-income housing available, though much of what they have developed so far is preliminary. Last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council vowed to spend $59 million over five years on affordable housing.

Incoming mayor Sheila Dixon has made affordable housing a centerpiece of her agenda. Dixon, the City Council president, pushed through an amendment to the city charter this year that will create a housing trust fund, though it is not clear how that fund will receive money.

David Tillman, a spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said the AHC project is indicative of a broader effort by private developers to invest in quality Section 8 property, which can be especially hard for prospective tenants to find.

"It's kind of a symbol that developers now see profit in these deals," Tillman said. "Five years ago, that just wasn't happening."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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