A model for change

December 17, 2007

The torched rowhouse of the Dawson family became a stark reminder of the deadly toll that crime, drugs and neglect can have on a Baltimore neighborhood. Angela Dawson's fight to drive out drug dealers in 2002 symbolized the struggle of Oliver residents and community organizers to protect and revive the East Baltimore community. And now their efforts are finally paying off in a strategy of shared investment that could help rebuild more than one impoverished neighborhood.

What's significant about the Oliver redevelopment is that the venture is community-driven (local churches and the BUILD organization have raised nearly $10 million in the past five years), relies on contributions from more than local government and is realistic about how best to overhaul a neighborhood. And it's not one house or one block at a time, which has been less than effective in revitalizing an entire community. Instead, it targets areas that border stable neighborhoods and rebuilds from there in a radial pattern.

Oliver, where 44 percent of the housing stock is vacant, is the right place for reinvestment, most significantly because of the massive redevelopment under way around the Johns Hopkins medical campus. The community's commitment is long and proven.

With the federal government no longer underwriting vast amounts of community redevelopment, partnerships are critical to sustained rebuilding. The housing that will be built or renovated through the BUILD project will cost from $99,000 to $139,000, which will be affordable to people earning $30,000 to $45,000. That's a practical assessment of what can be built affordably and what people can realistically afford. But it suggests that decent and affordable rental housing also has to be made available for city residents with lower incomes.

The Dixon administration has agreed to sell the BUILD venture 155 of the city's vacant houses in Oliver, which is true to Mayor Sheila Dixon's interest in having communities take the lead. Other state and city money will be contributed, but this is a 10-year project and BUILD expects to use its $10 million to leverage the rest of the financing.

BUILD's leaders are applying lessons learned from their redevelopment work in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore, which produced new housing and new homeowners but not the comprehensive revitalization they envisioned.

The Oliver project will begin at Caroline and Preston streets, about a block east of the old Dawson house, which the city renovated after the 2002 arson into a community center in memory of the family. That's a prime location to remind residents that citizens can change their community for the better, and change the city, too, in the process.

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