Bree Jones started thinking about new solutions for affordable housing when she saw her own neighborhood in New Rochelle, New York change. “There was a moment where this big developer came in and began to build luxury rental apartments in our black and brown, low-to-moderate income neighborhood,” she says. “And I realized really quickly, and so did a lot of my neighbors, that this was probably the first sign of gentrification and subsequent displacement.”
Jones, who was working in finance at the time, started organizing her neighbors and trying to get the developer to make changes such as adding more affordable housing. But it was a struggle. “I realized that once gentrification starts, it’s really hard to stop or reverse it,” she says. She thought about the fact that if the community had started working on the challenge earlier, it might have been possible to bring in a nonprofit developer instead—and then decided to launch that type of development organization herself.
“I pretty much set out to become that development company that works with community, instead of against community, and develops according to what the people say they want, rather than what the developer says that they want,” says Jones, who now runs a startup nonprofit called Parity.
The startup is based in Baltimore, in a neighborhood that has similarities to Jones’ home and her birthplace of the Bronx, but hasn’t yet gentrified. Jones considered several locations across the country, and felt that Baltimore was a perfect fit after visiting. “I wanted to work in a predominantly black neighborhood, and I also wanted to work in a neighborhood that was still struggling from the remnants of redlining,” she says. West Baltimore, where the nonprofit is focused, has seen decades of racist housing polices, destructive “urban renewal,” and disinvestment: Black residents, were denied home loans due to discriminatory banks. A midcentury infrastructure project then tore down hundreds of black-owned homes to build a freeway, but when a majority-white neighborhood in another part of the city resisted development, the larger project was cancelled, leaving a “highway to nowhere” that split up West Baltimore. As the community later dealt with the loss of jobs at steel mills and the crack epidemic, many homes were eventually abandoned.
In its first project, Parity plans to renovate 96 abandoned rowhouses in a 10-block area. So far, it has purchased 10 homes, using funding from foundations and private investors, with renovation to begin in October. Each home will get a full gut renovation that preserves the historic facade, and homebuyers will be able to work with architects to choose the final finishes. The nonprofit is working closely with existing residents in the area, with incomes ranging from around $40,000-$60,000, who will buy the renovated homes.
The organization is also working with existing homeowners in the area to help them stay in their current housing.”Part of what makes our model distinct from other developers is that we’re not just focused on the construction of new housing, but we’re focused on ensuring that legacy residents are retained and can stay in their neighborhood as long as they want and participate in the revitalization,” Jones says. That includes, for example, programs for preventing foreclosures and helping residents pay overdue property taxes. (To date, it has given small grants to 56 homeowners to help them avoid tax sales.) The nonprofit is building one-on-one relationships both with new homebuyers and existing homeowners through community events, word of mouth, and knocking on doors.
A group of 25 people from the neighborhood are part of a program that aims to help prepare them to move into the renovated houses together. “We’re really kind of building a movement amongst folks who are all committed to this idea of equity and social justice,” she says. “They’ve seen what’s happened in Harlem and Brooklyn, New York, and Washington, D.C. They don’t want it to happen in Baltimore, and they want to actively be a part of the solution.” They’re taking classes together on typical home ownership issues, like credit repair and saving for a down payment, but the program is also helping build a close-knit community. “We’re finding that that social component is way more effective at making this project work than anything else that I think other developers have tried,” Jones says. “I think when you focus just on the housing, it’s not sticky. People come and they go, or they don’t feel emotionally invested in the project or in the neighborhood. But we’re creating social bonds where people know their neighbors.”
The project is also considering the effects climate change. Because poorer neighborhoods in Baltimore have fewer trees, they’re also hotter in heat waves; Parity is working with a local landscaping company to add more green space. They’re also adding stormwater gardens that can help absorb rain to help prevent flooding.
While there’s a federal tax credit for building affordable rental housing, the same kinds of programs don’t exist for affordable homes designed for sale. But Jones helped introduce a bill in Maryland to create support for homeownership at a state level with a new tax credit; the bill passed earlier this year and is now going through appropriations. Over a longer period, the nonprofit hopes to train more local workers in construction to increase the labor pool, which may also help relieve some of steep costs of building now.
Families will move into the first few renovated houses early next year. There’s already a waiting list of 100 other people, Jones says. She’s hoping that the model can eventually be replicated in other cities with similarly high rates of abandoned homes, like Detroit. “The goal is really to build capacity so that we can ramp up quickly, because there’s such a high demand for the homes. And there’s so much to be done.”