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Mobtown Beat

Moving Company

Group Develops Plans to Homestead Troubled Baltimore Blocks

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/20/2002

First there were yuppies. Now there are "rybbies." The term stands for Risk-taking Young Baltimoreans, and it was coined by Adam Meister, an Internet entrepreneur who runs a dot-com business out of his Charles Village apartment. Meister is 26--that's the young part. And the risk? Well, Meister and a cadre of fellow twentysomethings he's organizing plan to make Baltimore a better place. And one way they envision doing this is by moving, en masse, to a run-down inner-city neighborhood.

Specifically, their concept is called Buy a Block. The idea is to unite 12 to 20 ambitious, ready-to-roll-up-their-sleeves home buyers who want to acquire and renovate vacant city houses. If they can purchase their properties within a block or two of one another, they can achieve homesteading critical mass, developing an instant moral-support group, neighborhood watch, and social circle.

"We don't want to live in $1,000 [a month] apartments and we can't afford the 'hot neighborhoods,'" Meister says. "We're an eclectic group of native Baltimoreans and people that just love city life for what it is. We want our investment to be a contribution to the city."

Meister promotes the idea on www. techbalt.com, a Web site he initially started to unite other tech-savvy people in town. But the Reisterstown native, who moved back to Baltimore in 2001 after working at jobs in New York, Detroit, and Silicon Valley, shifted the site's focus to the Buy a Block concept after driving down a largely vacant stretch of Reservoir Hill's Callow Avenue. Meister says the area was "devastated" and "an open-air drug market." However, the street's large houses reminded him of Charles Village.

"I thought it would be cool if I could buy one of these houses and fix it up," he says. "I could probably [get one] for really cheap. But I would die. I would be eaten alive. But then I thought, What if it wasn't just me? What if I was one of 15 others?"

Meister spreads the word about Techbalt.com on the Sun and City Paper online forums and handed out fliers during this summer's Artscape festival. He now has an e-mail list of 120 people who have expressed interest in the concept. A Buy a Block Yahoo! group he established earlier this year has 52 participants, and face-to-face meetings have drawn 20 interested people, he says.

"There is logic in like-minded people buying up a whole street of houses," says Buy a Block enthusiast Donnie Fair, a 26-year-old network administrator. "The idea that one person in a city block is going to have an impact on the surrounding chaos is foolhardy. There is power in numbers."

The main task now is finding the appropriate blocks. Meister says they are looking for an area with large, mostly abandoned houses close to the city center. He anticipates that they'll make a decision by next month. "We're all about three-story houses," Meister says. "We've looked in Sowebo, Reservoir Hill, and places near them."

Developers and real-estate agents have offered to help, but Meister is skeptical of their motives. Indeed, he says, the group is fearful that real-estate speculators will snatch up properties (while driving up prices) if word gets out about a neighborhood they're interested in. "They just want a piece of it to make money," Meister says. "I'm willing to physically put my body in a house."

Harold Hersch, president of Hersch-Lauren LLC, a company that manages property in low-income, troubled city neighborhoods, says he is "encouraged by the energy these young people have." He cautions them, however, that tracking down the owners of vacant properties can be very complicated and may be the effort's major hurdle.

"Even for a professional, when it comes to renovating, figuring that it will be twice as hard, take twice as long, and be twice as expensive is a pretty good rule of thumb," Hersch says.

While fully renovating a long-abused rowhouse can cost $100,000 or more, Meister has more modest numbers in mind. He envisions buying houses for $10,000 to $20,000, and then spending another $20,000 for the bare essentials: plumbing, electricity, heat, and a watertight roof. "You don't have to make it nice and fancy all at once," he figures. "You can do it slowly. [Many of us] were living in dorms six years ago--we can deal with crap."

Matt Pedersen, a 22-year-old recent graduate of University of Baltimore says he's interested in Meister's concept. "I don't mind living in a work-in-progress," Pedersen says. "You can make just one floor functional and live in that space."

JoAnn Copes, assistant commissioner for development with the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development, says the group's "critical mass" approach has some merit. It is somewhat comparable to the city's much vaunted Dollar House program, a mid-'70s initiative in which the city sold houses to people for $1 if they promised to renovate and live in them. One major difference is that in the 1970s, after a proposed highway project was canceled, the city had contiguous blocks of vacant houses to sell.

"The city doesn't have blocks of rowhouses to offer today," Copes says.

She also stresses that the Buy a Block group needs to be sensitive to an area's existing residents, "who might not see [their arrival] as a necessarily positive move."

Meister hopes that early and frequent communication with a neighborhood's exiting residents will help the incoming group gain acceptance.

"Neighborhoods are always better with owner occupants," says Bryan Taylor, who chronicles his struggles to renovate a vacant rowhouse in the Madison Park neighborhood on his Web site www.rebuildingmadison.info. "They don't need to be of one socioeconomic status or race, but just like-minded people with a shared interest in owning a home."

Taylor is the only homeowner on a block that he says continues to be plagued with drug activity. He admires Meister's proposal and would love to have some fellow urban pioneers in his vicinity.

"The moral encouragement would be overwhelming," Taylor says. "And if enough vacant houses became owner-occupied, the crack dealers would say, 'This block is inhospitable,' and move. The good tenants would stay, and the bad group would leave. Right now the drug dealers have all the people intimidated."

Meister is optimistic that his group will succeed in landing a block or two that they can coax back to health. Other homesteaders would hopefully follow the group's lead.

"I think it would be great to empty the suburbs back into the city," he says. "I don't know why anybody wants to live in Owings Mills New Town."

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