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Mobtown Beat

Take That Hill

A Group of Would-Be Homeowners Challenge Developers for the Right to Buy and Rehab Houses in Reservoir Hill

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Here Comes The Neighborhood: The members of Linden Tree hope to win the right to buy and rehab vacant properties in Reservoir Hill.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/30/2004

In March, the city of Baltimore put out a request for proposals (RFP) from developers interested in rehabbing 23 vacant properties on Linden and Callow avenues in Reservoir Hill—an area long plagued by crime, trash, and absentee landlords, and generally considered the most treacherous in the neighborhood. The city received eight responses to its request, most from development companies like Reservoir Hill Homes, a corporation led by developer Vito Simone, which offer to buy up several parcels, rehab the buildings, then sell the completed units to owner occupants. Other companies propose to sell some homes and reserve others as rental units.

One proposal in the batch stood out among the rest: It came not from a development company but from Linden Tree, a group of eight prospective homeowners from the greater Baltimore-Washington area who don’t just want to develop houses but want to make Reservoir Hill their home.

“If we can meet all the criteria and exceed what they’re looking for, then that alone should give us the opportunity to win the RFP,” says Linden Tree member Eric Lane. “Even if it just boiled down to really what’s best for the community, in my opinion eight new homeowners coming in and taking the bigger risk is probably [better] than some development company coming in and then getting out when they can.”

In September 2003, the city started selling off some of Reservoir Hill’s 350 vacant houses to rehabbers, part of its multipronged approach to speed the recovery of the blighted neighborhood. But the multiple proposals and theories about how best to implement the revitalization has created friction between old residents, urban homesteaders, developers, and the city itself.

“I think they’re taking a bold but desperate attempt,” says Olivia Fields, a Reservoir Hill homeowner for 13 years. “To be honest, there’s some sincerity here and there’s some capitalism here.”

At a set of community meetings held June 15 and 16, seven groups pitched their proposals for redevelopment to Reservoir Hill residents. Each was met with a mix of hope and skepticism from the residents, who worry that the historic architecture of the Victorian homes in the area won’t be preserved and that the plans of the bigger developers will bring more rental units into a neighborhood in which 67 percent of residents already rent.

“There have been plenty of renters around here for a long time,” Fields says. “Has that gotten us anywhere? No. We need people who have an investment in this community.”

Which is exactly what the members of Linden Tree say they can offer. The group plans to form a limited liability corporation to purchase and stabilize the houses. Once the buildings are structurally sound, each member will purchase a unit and rehab it to his or her own specifications.

Linden Tree is an offshoot of TechBalt.com, a Web site and community movement founded by Baltimore resident Adam Meister. The TechBalt group champions urban homesteading over leaving neighborhood revitalization in the hands of developers. TechBalt’s original plan was to organize a group of individuals interested in buying up houses on the same block in a downtrodden neighborhood, then revitalize the homes and, in the process, the neighborhood.

Last October, Meister’s “buy a block” plan was put in motion when he and three other TechBalt members purchased houses on Linden Avenue. The members of Linden Tree had hoped to join in the effort, but by the time they got involved the city had purchased many of the houses on the block and was planning to sell them in a bundle to the entity with the best proposal for renovating them. Now Linden Tree must compete with companies with more resources, like Pennrose Development and Reservoir Hill Homes Inc., to win the city’s approval to purchase the buildings.

“When it became clear that they were going to be bundled, we had sort of a debate,” says Linden Tree member Remington Stone, a 27-year-old with a degree in city planning from Cornell University. “Eventually, after some talking amongst ourselves, some talking with others, we decided let’s find somebody to partner with, let’s line up the homebuyers, let’s show them how we can do this.”

Linden Tree got involved with French Development Co., which had worked with the now-defunct community group Reservoir Hill H.O.P.E. in 2000 to 2002 to renovate five neighborhood houses.

“We thought, geesh, there are eight energetic, committed-to-city-living, financially prequalified, diverse people that want to be homeowners and live on Linden Avenue,” says French Development partner Jim French. “That shouldn’t be hard.”

Linden Tree also found an architecture firm, contractors, and financing. They have put together a lengthy proposal detailing the economics, construction plan, and time line for the project.

Now, like the other developers vying to purchase the houses in Reservoir Hill, the group awaits an answer from the city.

“It is a different proposal and it will take some getting used to,” says John Ruffin, executive director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, which has been soliciting community input for the city and has a representative on the selection committee. “Do they have the financial wherewithal to make it all happen? Can they get it done in a timely enough fashion to meet some of the concerns that were expressed at the meeting? Those are some of the things that I’d like to have answered if that was the proposal that was picked.”

Stone is aware of the apprehension some have about Linden Tree’s viability.

“They don’t necessarily look at us as a development entity,” Stone says. “[But] the only areas where we don’t look like the other proposals, we don’t need to. We have homebuyers. We don’t need to spend time on marketing studies.”

The Linden Tree proposal has the support of many of Reservoir Hill’s current residents. Several have written letters to the mayor supporting the group. Richard Pazornik, for example, a mortgage banker who recently bought a house in Reservoir Hill through the city’s homesteading push, sees potential in the group.

“The reason I’d like them to get that particular group of houses is they’ve got eight people already identified to go move into them,” he says. “So it would stabilize the block immediately. We don’t have to wait for someone to come in, renovate them, and put them up for sale, and hopefully sell them.”

Citing recent home sales and increasing interest in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood, the development companies submitting proposals say they expect to receive between $200,000 and $300,000 for the buildings once they are renovated. But not everyone is convinced that those are realistic projections

“Who’s going to pay $300,000 to live in the ghetto?” asks Meister, who bought his home for $41,000.

Ruffin doesn’t think it will be a problem. “We’re getting interest from all up and down the East Coast in terms of people wanting to relocate to Reservoir Hill,” he says.

Most of the market analyses included in the proposals paint a similarly rosy picture. HRS Homes, one of the developers vying for the opportunity to develop the houses, claims that 36 properties in the neighborhood sold for more than $200,000 in 2003 and ’04, some for more than $300,000. But according to the Maryland State Department of Assessment and Taxation, only 10 of the 36 properties were purchased by people who made them a primary residence.

In Pennrose’s proposal, the company claims it already has interested buyers—specifically, the company hopes to sell the properties to the members of Linden Tree.

“There is a group of eight potential buyers organized through ‘Techbalt’ who are interested in purchasing the eight homes on Linden Avenue,” the proposal notes. “We have met with a representative of these buyers, who expressed interest in working with Pennrose if we are successful in obtaining the Linden properties.”

Stone, however, denies that Linden Tree has made any formal agreements with Pennrose. Rather, the company is his group’s competitor for the houses, and he says he is unsure if he would be willing to buy from Pennrose should the company win the homes.

“For them to be talking about us by name . . . that was probably going too far,” Stone says. “And to suggest that we had an agreement was very wrong.”

Linden Tree’s Lane says that he doesn’t think anyone from his group would buy Penrose-rehabbed homes “out of principle.”

Pennrose development officer Patrick Wagner says his organization had no intention of undermining Linden Tree’s proposal. Rather, he says, it wanted “to indicate to the city that if we were successful in obtaining the properties in this RFP that we would be very interested in working with them.”

Meister, the founder of the TechBalt movement, is displeased with what he perceives as an attempt by developers and the city to use his organization to drive up sales prices for properties in the area.

“In a sense, these people are looking to totally profit off of my idea, and they didn’t lay the groundwork,” Meister says. “The people who did the work are the people who are living here right now.”

Of course, not everyone thinks of TechBalt as the catalyst for revival in Reservoir Hill. Fields says she admires the group’s commitment to the neighborhood but says Meister is “taking too much personal credit.”

She says the many residents who have lived in Reservoir Hill long before TechBalt began are the ones who have invested the most in the neighborhood and that whoever ends up winning the RFP for the area should be willing to take that into consideration.

“If they want to come here and work with [the] people who have been here, stuck it out through some seriously hard times, and have had this positive vision and are really working hard at it, [that’s great],” she says. “But don’t come in and act like you’re the savior.”

The city Department of Housing and Community Development hopes to make its selection in the next month.

“Either way, it’s a win-win situation for me,” Fields says of whether Linden Tree or another developer wins the properties. “If it increases my property value, it gives me at least two options—to stay and enjoy my community with less eyesores, or it says to me I have an opportunity now to sell it for worth something and get out and do something else.”

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