By Caitlin Johnston
BALTIMORE – For decades, middle-class families bought rowhouses in Belair-Edison and settled down on blocks where neighbors knew each other and kids played in the park. But as the recession recedes, this Northeast Baltimore community finds itself struggling.
Foreclosures, predatory lenders, unemployment, subsidized rentals all have frayed the connections that residents here prized.
“It’s not the same, no, not at all,” said Gwendolyn Moore, a homeowner who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years. “It’s about 10 or 11 houses empty on that side of the street and five or six on this side.”
The future of Belair-Edison is important beyond its boundaries. Baltimore, an old city struggling with so many urban issues, does not need another failing community.
“We used to say Belair-Edison is a bellwether for the city,” said Barbara Aylesworth, senior program officer for Healthy Neighborhoods. “It’s mini-Baltimore.”
Organizations such as Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc., are invested in the health of the neighborhood. The nonprofit is trying to stem the blight and keep the neighborhood from slipping further.
In addition to funding from private foundations and grants from the city and state, Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc., has partnered with Healthy Neighborhoods, which provides support and smaller grants for block improvement projects.
Belair-Edison has organized block captains and focuses on community organizing and events. It offers homeownership counseling, foreclosure intervention and outreach, small business development and small grants for block improvement projects.
“For a while after the economy totally crashed, I think people were just depressed. They were angry about what was happening in the real estate market,” said Mary Warlow, director of programs and development for Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc. “Now they’re converting their energy toward something positive and proactive. There became a sense of ‘Now I’m trapped in this neighborhood. I have to stay, so I might as well make the best of it.’”
One of the largest rowhouse communities in the country, Belair-Edison has 6,900 houses and nearly 18,000 people — and it long has been a magnet for middle-class families.
“It’s had that long-standing existence within the city as the steady, stable neighborhood,” said Matthew Kachura, program manager for Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. The alliance, which is part of the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, maintains quality-of-life data on Baltimore neighborhoods.
The community is dominated by brick rowhouses with porches — some in better shape than others. On one block, a broken screen door rests on a porch. Trash litters the street. Around the corner, the atmosphere is different. Pots of bright plants adorn the small lawns. Yards are groomed.
Many blocks are pockmarked by abandoned homes. Some of those have boarded-up windows — which stand out no matter if a neighbor sweeps the porch or plants some flowers next door.
Belair Road, the main drag, cuts along the eastern side of the neighborhood, with up-and-coming shops, restaurants and a beauty salon. But there too, some shops remain boarded-up, despite an “Open” sign hanging in one. Clifton and Herring Run parks, with running trails and plenty of green, are nearby.
Moore said that when she first moved to Belair-Edison, the neighborhood was beautiful, with good neighbors, clean streets and green grass everywhere.
“It was so nice, I told my husband we could’ve gone out back and had a picnic,” she said. “Not now.”
Historically, Belair-Edison was a blue-collar, ethnic neighborhood full of families who worked in the automotive and steel industries when Baltimore was an industrial city. The work force had good union wages, health insurance and consistent employment, meaning people were able to buy houses, accumulate equity, and send their children to college.
But heavy industry dwindled through the 1970s and 80s. The result was more than just a change in jobs, Aylesworth said. Now, the city and Belair-Edison rely on jobs in the service industry, where wages are lower than in industry and opportunities for advancement are fewer.
Belair-Edison Housing Services was founded in the late 1980s to help stabilize rapid changes in the housing market, Warlow said. In 1991, the organization incorporated as a separate non-profit with the goal of helping homebuyers and homeowners sustain homeownership.
After becoming a Healthy Neighborhood in 2000, the group changed its name to Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc., and broadened the scope of the mission to include the neighborhood and local businesses.
And for a while, Belair-Edison seemed to be on the rise. Just before the recession arrived in 2007, things were looking good here.
Housing prices were soaring and new families were arriving. Houses that cost $37,000 in 2000 increased steadily in value — to a median high of $139,000 in 2008.
But then the housing bubble burst. Values plummeted to a median $60,000 in 2011.
What seemed to be a boom was fed by predatory lending practices. Many who thought homeownership was out of reach fell prey to subprime lenders who lulled them into thinking they could afford the payments. Longtime owners also fell victim to refinancing schemes, Kachura said.
“We’ve always been subject of these predatory lending practices,” Warlow said. “Sort of everything that’s come under the sun has happened here.”
More renters moved in, which worries longtime homeowners, who fear tenants don’t have the same stake in the community.
Investors came in trying to flip houses — buying low, making minimal improvements and selling at inflated prices to naive buyers.
And the number of foreclosures grew. More foreclosures means a greater level of stress on the neighborhood. And more foreclosures, coupled with vacant homes, can make it harder to recruit families to live in an area that may be viewed as being distressed, Kachura said.
Unemployment has affected the neighborhood too. Many working-class families are living month to month. When the economy is down, their work hours might be cut. And though some of them have savings, many don’t. Even one month of being out of work is too much, Warlow said.
“You’re just dealing with people on really marginal budgets,” Warlow said. “Some of them have bad spending habits and some of them don’t. Some of them just don’t have that much to work with.”
The combination of foreclosures, predatory lending and an increase in renters has left the neighborhood wounded.
At the offices of Belair-Edison Neighborhoods, Inc., on Belair Road, the eight-person staff encourages residents to work together to solve problems and make each block as strong as possible. The non-profit tries to stay on the lookout for violations of the city housing code, including houses that need repair.
“A lot of these issues require real-time observation and reporting,” Warlow said. “We’re not on your block 24 hours a day. So residents need to be the ones who take ownership of the problem and solution.”
Each block has a block captain who organizes clean-ups and beautification programs and helps solve common problems. Jacqueline Addison, a block captain who has lived in her house for 24 years, said she is working to show people that they can’t just expect others to clean up or call the police when they see suspicious activity. If they want a change, they have to take the initiative.
She said she loves her neighborhood. But, if things keep going the way they are, she said she’s afraid she might have to leave.
Some of the newcomers, she said, do not have the same standards as longtime residents.
“People just really don’t care about the community because they come from a place that was already broken down, and they’re not going to change,” Addison said.
“I’m afraid that, in five years, Belair-Edison is going to be just as bad as those neighborhoods down the hill,” she said, referring to neighborhoods worn out by crime, drugs and poverty, like the Oliver neighborhood where she grew up.
“When you have this economic recession and you have the housing bubble bursting and then a rise in foreclosures and decreasing home sales, it’s going to appear to have hit that neighborhood (Belair-Edison) more because that neighborhood was doing better than many other neighborhoods in the city to begin with,” Kachura said.
While residents fret about the health of the neighborhood, Aylesworth points to fairly consistent homeownership rates as a sign of stability.
“In spite of the incredible impact of the huge predatory lending and then the whole real estate market collapse, the neighborhood still maintains a pretty high ownership rate and continues to attract solid home ownership buyers,” Aylesworth said.