Group rebuilding Oliver neighborhood one green home at a time

Eco-friendly is focus of nonprofit's effort to rehab abandoned properties

  • Earl Johnson, executive director of One Green Home at a Time Foundation, a revitalization initiative in the Oliver neighborhood.
Earl Johnson, executive director of One Green Home at a Time… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
February 12, 2011|By Nancy Jones Bonbrest, Special to The Baltimore Sun

A rehabbed home minutes from downtown with exposed brick, granite countertops, hardwood floors and a Jacuzzi tub might not immediately bring to mind the East Baltimore neighborhood of Oliver.

One Green Home at a Time Foundation — along with other organizations — is trying to change that perception and in the process revive a neighborhood that is riddled with abandoned and vacant homes.

"The hope is the entire neighborhood will come back," said David Borinsky, an attorney, CEO of Bridge Private Lending and founder of One Green Home at a Time Foundation.

The nonprofit, founded just about 15 months ago, is funded by Bridge Private Lending, a lending company specializing in financing the purchase and rehabilitation of homes in low- to middle-income neighborhoods with a focus on eco-friendly building techniques.

In Oliver, the idea is simple, Borinsky said. A neighborhood is more than just houses, so the nonprofit spreads its efforts not only coordinating rehabilitation of houses, but through other initiatives such as helping to create public green spaces and community gardens, offering on-the-job training for residents, and securing weatherization and lead-abatement benefits for current residents.

"Neighborhoods consist of people, so the focus should be on the people and not on the bricks and sticks," Borinsky said. "Our mission is to build houses, but to also connect that with people's lives."

He said the community has been invaluable in coordinating efforts for the project, which focuses on one block at a time.

"The [rehabbed] houses gave us the boost we needed," said Nina Harper, executive director of the Oliver Community Association and Oliver Economic Development Corporation. She said now is the time for the neighborhood.

"The momentum is here. We have many partners and invite anyone to come in and work with us on a collaborative effort."

This approach to urban blight is making an impact. Already, 23 homes have been rehabbed through funding provided by Bridge Private Lending and all but two have sold or are under contract.

The homes feature high-end amenities and advanced building techniques to promote energy efficiency and lower monthly energy bills. They sell in the $160,000 to $200,000 range.

When Kelvin Holliday first saw one of the rehabbed houses he fell in love with the top-notch features, craftsmanship and, eventually, the neighborhood.

"I love city life," said Holliday. "Once I started getting involved with the community and saw it was going through a transition I felt very comfortable there."

So comfortable, he's piqued the interest of friends and family members about the opportunities for high-end affordable housing in Oliver.

In speaking with his neighbors, Holliday said they welcome the efforts.

"They're excited to see it changing," he said. "And to see that One Green Home at a Time is bringing in homeowners to take care of the property and boost the area up."

The neighborhood still faces challenges and has many abandoned homes, but there are also home sales and renovations being coordinated by the foundation. The work has also caught the eye of independent contractors who see the value in the neighborhood and have begun to rehab homes to sell as well.

Earl Johnson moved to Oliver in July with his wife, Zinitha. They both recently left the military and were looking to set down roots. What they found in Oliver was a mission.

"My focus here is to bring back what people think of when they think of a community. A place that's safe, a place people can enjoy and a place they can feel proud of," said Johnson, executive director of the Green Home foundation.

Johnson didn't move to the neighborhood for the job, but after volunteering time with the nonprofit, decided to move into the full-time position.

The organization recently initiated a literacy program, BookmoCycle, where gently used books are donated to area children. They're hoping to partner with school librarians to help distribute the books. This spring they'll focus on creating green spaces and parks with a purpose, hoping to develop the city's first free Wi-Fi park.

"When people think of Oliver I want them to think of a neighborhood that was down but now is up," Johnson said.

He stresses the prime location of the neighborhood, minutes from downtown, Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"It just needs a little TLC," Johnson said. "This is just the beginning, but it's going to be something great."

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