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The Hopkins Employee Next Door
Live Near Your Work grants are reinvigorating East Baltimore neighborhoods.

blank Katie Bell
Mary Leslie Sylvia and husband, Terry, touch up their new home on Baltimore Street. "It's pretty cool that we can look out our window and watch the hospital's towers rise," she says.

In 2003, Jennifer Moody was a recent college graduate renting a house in Fells Point. A recreational therapist at Johns Hopkins Bayview, she enjoyed the short commute to work and city life. But with each rental payment, she was reminded that her money wasn’t building any equity. So Moody, then 25, began looking at homes in Patterson Park, first casually, then with a realtor. Short on funds for a down payment and closing costs, she was about to scrap the idea.

Then her realtor suggested that she sign up for the Live Near Your Work home ownership assistance program, a Hopkins perk that had escaped Moody’s notice. A month later, the program would open a door to affordability—and to Moody’s refurbished Patterson Park row house, where she’s lived ever since.

Launched in 1997 as part of the city’s “Smart Growth” initiative, Live Near Your Work provides grants to fully benefited employees of selected employers in search of homes in target areas near the Homewood, East Baltimore, Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Bayview campuses. The program recently got a $2.5 million boost from the Rouse Company Foundation. Its goal is to reduce sprawl, cut commutes and increase home ownership in designated areas slated for redevelopment. Initially, the state, city and employer (Hopkins is the largest among several) each contributed $1,000.

Today, Johns Hopkins employees who buy homes within these areas receive a minimum grant of $2,500—or as much as $17,000, depending on the targeted area—toward a down payment and closing costs. (That number includes $1,000 from the city.) Additional grants through the East Baltimore Development Corporation are also available to qualified buyers in certain neighborhoods. So, at the very least, those who meet the Live Your Work requirements will receive a total of $2,500 in grant money.

Over the past decade, approximately 600 Hopkins employees have participated in the program. And, thanks to the new Biotech Park building project, the new clinical buildings and city-wide revitalization efforts, that number is expected to grow rapidly.

What’s the catch? Employees must meet with Sandy Jenkins, Johns Hopkins WORKlife client services assistant, who will walk them through the application process. They must also agree to one-on-one housing counseling with one of the city’s housing counseling agencies.

Within 24 hours of receiving the paperwork, Jenkins processes the application and forwards it to Baltimore City’s Homeownership Institute. (Because the city’s document requirements are more rigorous, however, the wait for the $1,000 check can take up to a month.) Jenkins had been handling the process for the university, and, since Aug. 1, 2008, her office oversees Live Near Your Work applications from all the Hopkins affiliates. Jenkins is already feeling the impact. “Even though we’re experiencing a struggling economy,” she says, “it’s truly a buyer’s market.”

At the same time, Jenkins says it’s exciting to see these neighborhoods evolve culturally and racially. At this writing, she’s helping seven potential homeowners—a mix of Hopkins Hospital, university and Bayview employees, ranging in age from 30 to 50-plus. They are nurses, researchers, environmental service workers and lab techs from various ethnic backgrounds. And, more than ever, she notes, single women are pursuing home ownership.

Never far from her poster-size map of the designated neighborhoods with streets highlighted in red ($16,000 grant), yellow ($9,000 grant) and blue ($5,000 grant), Jenkins is mired in paperwork. She must stay informed about grant changes and revitalization projects. But the payoff, she says, is the look on employees’ faces when she hands them a check. “Being at the forefront of helping people make one of the biggest investments of their lives,” she says, “is a rewarding experience and a good feeling.”

A month ago, Mary Leslie Sylvia was on the receiving end. Just a few months after she was hired as administrative coordinator in Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, she read about the Live Near Your Work program on the Internet. A self-described city girl who had just relocated with her husband from a small city in Georgia to be closer to family, Sylvia jumped at the chance for a subsidy.

Like Moody, Sylvia and her husband had been renting in Fells Point and were already working with an agent to find an affordable home in the city. But money was tight after the move from Georgia. Within hours of learning about the Live Near Your Work program, Sylvia made an appointment with Jenkins.

Though Sylvia had owned homes before, she didn’t mind the required course, which she says provided budget advice and valuable information on how to do a contract, among other things. She and her husband, Terry, a 29-year veteran contractor and part-time pastor, soon found their dream home on East Baltimore Street, six blocks east of Patterson Park.

The open-style loft row house had been gutted. What struck Terry Sylvia was the work he didn’t have to do. “We fell in love with the exposed brick walls and wood floors,” says Mary Leslie. The 1,135-square-foot home has a half-bath and laundry room on the first floor and full bath and kitchen upstairs.

The Sylvias weren’t oblivious to city crime statistics. Indeed, friends and family had expressed concern about their decision to live in East Baltimore. But the couple held firm. Growing up in the Northeast area of Washington, D.C., Sylvia learned to be street smart. She is clear about the benefits of city life: “I don’t want a big house. I love being able to go out and see people. Relationships to me are more important than possessions, and we enjoy learning about different cultures. I can ride my bike to work—it’s 1.7 miles away—and enjoy the camaraderie that comes from seeing people out and about.” As a man sitting on a stoop in her new neighborhood told her, “We all look out for each other.”

Meanwhile, in the five years since Jennifer Moody bought her home, she’s become active in Patterson Park’s community association and participates in organized sports in the park, where she can also be found walking her dog. “It all worked out perfectly,” says Moody. “Live Near Your Work took the pressure off me to come up with the extra money, and it kept me in the city, where I want to be.”

Judith F. Minkove

For more information about Live Near Your Work, call WORKlife, 443-997-7000, or go to jhu.edu/worklife.

 

 

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