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ReBUILD Metro On A Mission To Tackle Baltimore's Vacant Housing Problem

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- A local nonprofit organization is on a mission to reduce the number of vacant homes throughout Baltimore City.

The organization, ReBUILD Metro, has developed a unique and successful strategy for successful strategy since it was founded in 2002.

"So, our vision became that we wanted to create a home and community environment from the rail station down to Hopkins, two of the most important venues in our city," Rev. Calvin Keene, the group's cofounder, told WJZ.  "And recognizing if we could make that connection, we could make a significant difference in the community in which people were living."

When Rev. Keene began, there was a 40% vacancy rate in the Oliver neighborhood in East Baltimore. Since then, that percentage has dropped to about 2%.

One of the vacant buildings on East Broadway has been transformed into a successful business, Legendary Lifestyle Cafe, owned and operated by Kirsten Allen, who has a passion for all things healthy living. She serves farm-to-table style meals.

"It was just all the ducks started lining up in a row when we came into this space," Allen said. "It was just like divine intervention, and I was like, this is supposed to be ours."

ReBUILD Metro began buying and renovating homes in Greenmount West, next to Penn Station, and in the Oliver neighborhood, just a few blocks away from Johns Hopkins Medical Center. It has been able to renovate close to 400 homes without displacing a single person. It has also cleared several hundred more vacancies to make way for green space.

The group's work is based on a three-pronged effort. First, the organization seeks buy-in and input from the community. Secondly, it supports the community's vision with technical analysis, by developing an understanding the cash flow of the market. Finally, the group rallies investors behind the effort.

"So, you're going to build from strength towards weakness," ReBUILD Metro President Sean Closkey said. "We started with the train station, and we started with the hospital, and you build towards a place. And, as that happens, if you're repairing a hole in your shirt, you're going to sew into strong fabric and you're going to bridge the gap into other strong fabric, and you're going to pull them together."

By improving and rehabilitating vacant homes, Closkey said, ReBUILD has improved the overall value of Baltimore's housing market, increased the population and brought down incidents of violent crime.

The group's next endeavor is in Johnston Square.

"A vibrant thriving community needs people in the houses, it needs places for people to live, it needs a restaurant, it needs a supermarket, it needs a recreational space, and those are things that we're lacking. This is going to fill that gap," said Regina Hammond, executive director of the Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Association.

Experienced contractors are in the process of transforming 36 vacant homes that line the entrance to the Johnston Square neighborhood. The idea is that once the project is complete, you will be able to walk from Penn Station all the way to Johns Hopkins without seeing a single abandoned home.

"We haven't just built houses. We've built community," Rev. Keene said.

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