Making a house a home

November 25, 2007

Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood in some ways seems to have fallen between the cracks of the city and the county; ironically, that's because it's in both. The down-at-the-heels formerly industrial area is an anomaly. Brooklyn straddles the Baltimore City-Anne Arundel County line, and there are those who claim that means it gets ignored by both.

Fortunately, it has most definitely caught the attention of Arundel Habitat for Humanity, which is looking to transform a five-block swath of Brooklyn by buying up and rehabbing 40 vacant houses and then selling them at affordable prices to working families. Even better, the goal is not just to transform those five blocks but also to create an environment that fosters pride of ownership, continued investment and a stable, livable neighborhood.

This represents a continuing shift in how some of the Habitat organizations in the region are doing business - and it makes very good sense. Rather than picking a house here and a house there to rehab, or a solitary lot on which to build, these days Habitat is aiming to create momentum by providing the foundation, literally and figuratively, upon which developers and residents can build.

As reported by Stephen Kiehl in The Sun recently, Arundel Habitat has acquired 34 houses so far, just six short of its goal. The idea is to sell the renovated homes to folks who rent in the neighborhood now and who would not otherwise be able to afford to own a house.

Habitat offers affordable prices and 30-year interest-free mortgages to families that qualify. In return, the new homeowners have an investment in their communities and an incentive to raise the overall tenor and value of the area.

It's an ideal model for Baltimore, and it's already seen some success stories in other parts of the city. We'd like to see even more.

To that end, Chesapeake Habitat, which has had some notable cluster renovations in the Pen Lucy neighborhood and around Patterson Park, is looking to take on a concentrated area of 50 or more houses in East Baltimore. That's an exciting prospect, particularly with the development already in the works on that side of town.

But none of this is a slam-dunk. Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, part of an umbrella group of organizations working to stabilize that troubled neighborhood on Baltimore's west side, has renovated 250 houses and has seen property values rise and homeownership increase. But it has taken 18 years, and the neighborhood still has a ways to go. That doesn't mean it isn't going to get there.

Such urban transformations take time - and a city government that's willing to work as hard as Habitat's volunteers do to make them happen.

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