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East Baltimore Historic II Project Receives ACHP/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation

Image of Rachelle Levitt, Director of PD&R's Research Utilization Division.Rachelle Levitt, Director of PD&R's Research Utilization Division.

Many cities across the U.S. are confronting the challenge of revitalizing their housing stock while also preserving the character of their neighborhoods. The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), in partnership with HUD, recognizes developers and organizations that are helping cities do just that. On July 21, 2017, the East Baltimore Historic II project received the 2017 ACHP/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, and on August 10, a celebration was held at the Memorial Baptist Church in East Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood, which I was honored to attend. During the event, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin recognized and congratulated the community residents, nonprofit developers, religious leaders, and housing advocates who united to revitalize Oliver, a neighborhood that had witnessed years of disenfranchisement, high unemployment, and drug and health crises. Reverend Calvin Keene, pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, explained that the housing vacancy rate in Oliver was 44 percent, which significantly contributed to blight and negatively impacted the health and safety of residents. I was particularly moved by residents’ experiences and by learning how the tragic firebombing of the Dawson family’s home in 2002 became an additional impetus for change. This context set the stage for nonprofit developer TRF Development Partners and nonprofit organization Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) to revitalize the East Baltimore Historic II community, creating affordable housing while preserving the historic features of East Baltimore’s Victorian rowhouses. HUD Secretary Ben Carson addressed the community during the program in a video message, in which he stated that: “The preservation of our heritage is essential to understanding ourselves as Americans. Preserving stories and places of America’s past reminds us every day of the struggles and successes of those who came before us and inspires us to boldly work toward a brighter future.”

Rebuilding Community

Development efforts began in 2003 through BUILD’s redevelopment plan and through public meetings with residents to gather community input. This grassroots community engagement is central to TRF Development Partners’ mission to invest in neighborhoods with the potential for long-term economic growth. TRF Development Partners’ work focused on making housing in Oliver more affordable for the most vulnerable while also creating pathways to homeownership. From 2014 through 2016, TRF Development Partners rehabilitated 32 vacant rowhouses and 2 mixed-use buildings in the neighborhood and made them available to residents earning between 50 and 80 percent of the area median income.

Improving Economic Opportunity

As Keene explained, the revitalization of Oliver went beyond brick-and-mortar work — it also included efforts to empower its residents, many of whom had criminal records or were either unemployable or unemployed. These efforts centered on creating jobs, developing residents’ life skills, and fostering civic engagement. In addition to the generous support of civic organizations and neighborhood churches, HUD provided necessary funding to TRF Development Partners to finance an onsite, neighborhood business, Coffeehouse and Café CUPs (Creating Unlimited Possibilities) — a social enterprise that places workforce development at the core of its mission while serving breakfast and lunch six days a week. Holly Shook-Gray, chief executive officer at CUPs, said that all sales go toward “Project I Can,” a workforce development program in which Baltimore youth aged of 16 to 24 learn hands-on job and life skills by working at CUPs over the course of a year. CUPs helps those facing barriers due to education, background, or criminal record to take the first step toward financial stability.

Turn Around Tuesdays,” sponsored by BUILD, is another initiative that prepares residents to reenter the workforce through training in computer literacy, résumé writing, and interview skills as well as through adult education workshops. Thanks to partnerships with area employers such as Johns Hopkins University and Hospital, the University of Maryland, TRF Development Partners, churches, and local companies, trainees completing the eight-week program have access to numerous employment opportunities. Since 2015, more than 315 people once classified as unemployable are now employed, Keene said.

Positive Outcomes

Jordan Tannenbaum, the ACHP general public member who presented the award, said that the efforts in Oliver prove that “we don’t have to bulldoze” and can instead balance preservation with community revitalization. Oliver has many strengths that made this effort a success, such as its residents, who were united toward a common goal; its location; and its connections to major institutions such as Johns Hopkins University. Secretary Carson stated that the work of community partners in East Baltimore is “a great example of the power that comes from a public-private collaboration, not just to rehab a few homes, but an entire neighborhood. This project serves as a model of how to rebuild our aging infrastructure.… It’s not only honoring the historic character of Charm City, but also offering new economic opportunities to families.” Not only has the East Baltimore Historic II project reduced the number of vacant properties in the neighborhood (from 481 in 2009 to 30 in 2016), but it has also uplifted an entire community and placed residents on the path to homeownership and economic stability. The Office of Policy Development and Research will further explore the East Baltimore Historic II project on its case studies page.