City bets millions on renewal of troubled Johnston Square neighborhood
Rehab costs, strategy questioned amid push to revive blighted E. Baltimore area
Mary Ross, left, Director of the Johnston Square Community Development Corp., and Walter Jones, President, are pictured at the 800 block of E. Preston Street, where they hope boarded-up row houses, in background, will be rehabbed by Mi Casa Inc., a D.C. non-profit affordable housing developer. The CDC hosted an informational meeting for people interested in buying these rehabbed row houses. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / June 14, 2011)
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"I love it, I really do," she says. A widow who works as a teacher's assistant, she also loves her low rent: $475 a month, utilities included.
But whether it's such a bargain for taxpayers is debatable.
Batchelor's apartment is one of 10 units inside four East Preston Street rowhouses that were overhauled at a cost of nearly $1.9 million in public funds, 40 percent above the original budget. That means the tab for renovations was almost a half-million dollars per rowhouse — an "insane" price, according to contractor Jack BeVier, who restores rowhouses for profit and isn't involved in the project.
And that is just the start. On the rest of Batchelor's block, and another nearby, 30 more boarded-up rowhouses will soon be rehabbed at an average cost of $300,000 apiece, much of it from federal stimulus funds. Those houses will then be sold to lower-income buyers at steeply discounted prices of $70,000 or $75,000.
All told, more than $30 million worth of housing investment is under way or planned for Johnston Square, a battered neighborhood below Green Mount Cemetery where islands of homeownership are surrounded by vacant lots and empty or run-down houses. Major financing will be from government grants and tax subsidies.
"We really think this will jump-start some things," city housing commissioner Paul T. Graziano said in an interview. "Unfortunately, it's not the kind of thing that gets done cheaply, and it's not the kind of thing that private developers, certainly for-profit developers, are going to do at this point.
"But we sort of feel like if we're in there priming the pump, loss leader, whatever you want to call us," the area will improve, said Graziano, who also directs the city's public housing authority. He defended the rehab costs as reasonable in light of the houses' poor condition and the wage and other requirements of the federal government.
Still, beyond the high costs, some experts in urban revitalization question whether these investments make sense in a neighborhood with swaths of housing that resemble a ghost town.
Christopher B. Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies urban renewal, cast doubt on the city's investment premise in the neighborhood. "The days of parachuting into a poor neighborhood and doing a few projects, doing a few houses, and then hoping the entire neighborhood is going to turn around are obviously over," he said. "We've learned that doesn't work."
Brett Theodos of the Urban Institute in Washington said while reviving Johnston Square might be a laudable goal, these housing projects likely won't succeed without a broad, coordinated strategy. Though it may sound unfair, Theodos says, public dollars could be more effectively spent where the odds of a turnaround are higher. "It may well be this housing could be a drop in the bucket, and there is so much surrounding distress that it makes no difference," he said.
Graziano insists that the city has a grand plan for the neighborhood and the wider area. Sitting in a conference room high above downtown, he used color-coded maps to show how the projects fit a larger picture, with Johnston Square occupying a key crossroads. The neighborhood is bounded roughly by the cemetery, Jones Falls Expressway, Eager Street and, in spots, North Eden Street.
The work on Preston Street — the 10 apartments and 30 houses — is led by Washington-based Mi Casa, Inc., a well-regarded nonprofit developer chosen in a competitive process by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns the properties.
There are two other major housing efforts going on in the neighborhood:
•The Lillian Jones Apartments, with 74 units of affordable rentals, is planned for the southeast corner of Greenmount Avenue and Hoffman Street. Groundbreaking for the $16 million project, funded through competitively awarded low-income housing tax credits, is planned for the fall.
•The city housing authority is rehabilitating 36 other rowhouses scattered around the neighborhood. Total cost is estimated at $5.3 million, and some work has begun. The funding source is the $787 billion federal stimulus bill passed by Congress in 2009.
Also, the housing authority hopes to raze an unspecified number of houses, most of them already empty, west of Greenmount between Chase and Biddle streets. Graziano says he wants to "acquire all that, clear it, close down some streets and create some open space — green space, ideally recreational fields." This would include the area north of St. Frances Academy, a renowned Catholic high school.
More broadly, he says, the city hopes to revive the haggard Greenmount corridor that bisects Johnston Square and edges the Greenmount West neighborhood, where new subsidized artist housing has opened. He also wants to better link Johnston Square to areas further east, including the revitalization initiative around the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
Elsewhere in Baltimore, federal money is flowing into areas deemed better off than Johnston Square. Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. leads a consortium that won $26 million in stimulus funds to buy, rehab and resell homes. It works in Patterson Park, Belair Edison and other areas that its president Mark Sissman calls "in the middle" — hurt by foreclosures and vacancies, but not too distressed.