In Harlem Park on Saturday, it was a bigger crowd than many of those gathered expected.
But many weren’t surprised, given who brought them together. Over the last two years, Bree Jones built a collective around affordable redevelopment in the West Baltimore neighborhood under the banner of Parity Homes. It’s mindful of addressing historic patterns like redlining and construction of the nearby highway to nowhere that led to displacement, as well as the blight it left behind. As part of that collective, she is working with residents on a pathway to homeownership, which is mindful of building wealth.
After laying the groundwork through organizing, developing entrepreneurial skills, legislating, meeting with the community, financing and a lot more, she’s ready to start construction.
On Saturday, a tree planting by residents marked the groundbreaking of the first three vacant houses that will be rehabbed by the company, as the event gathered elders, families and prospective homebuyers in the neighborhood. The block party event also drew elected officials from the state and city such as Mayor Brandon Scott and state legislators, city officials, foundation leaders, funders and the leaders of Baltimore’s programs supporting entrepreneurship.
They were all involved in getting Parity Homes to this point: Rehabilitation work is set to begin on three homes near Franklin and North Carrollton Avenue. A total of 10 homebuyers are looking to move into the neighborhood. In all, there are plans for 96 vacant homes to be redeveloped altogether.
“What encourages me is that we now are going to be a part of making this a destination, making this a Black middle class, working class neighborhood once again and that it’s being led by a Black woman,” Scott said.
After seeing gentrification in her hometown of New Rochelle, New York, Jones left her job on Wall Street, and moved to Baltimore to start Parity. Jones worked with a local group to ideate at the social impact-focused GiveBackHack in Baltimore in 2019. The next year, it drew support from the city’s community supporting social entrepreneurs. She was part of cohorts with other founders and received funding through Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab and Open Society Institute. It was also among the first recipients of funding when social entrepreneurship resource network Innovation Works launched its investment fund Ignite Capital in 2020.
She settled on starting in Harlem Park, an area that was home to a large Black middle and working class community before the construction of the long-maligned, unfinished highway led to displacement. The early funding helped her acquire the first building, and complete architectural drawings.
From there, support expanded beyond entrepreneurship circles. Local foundations and institutions such as the France-Merrick Foundation Kaiser Permanente, Lowe’s Foundation, Bank of America Foundation, the Reinvestment Fund, the Abell Foundation and LifeBridge Health stepped up with the funding. Jones worked with State Sen. Antonio Hayes and Del. Brooke Lierman to pass legislation to provide funding to address the appraisal gap that exists between homes in historically redlined communities and others. Soon, Jones was able to start purchasing homes. Eight came though the City’s Vacants to Value program, and another four were acquired directly from owners of abandoned buildings.
And during that time, she worked in the community. She sought to work with legacy residents who have always been there, renters who wish to buy a home, and prospective homebuyers looking to move in to the vacants that Parity will redevelop. It was done at churches, community meetings, schools and old-fashioned door-knocking.
Given the nature of the work, it’s not surprising that she also met the elected officials, who became supportive.
“A lot of times people look at these houses and they see lack, they see loss, they see a challenge,” said 9th District City Councilman John Bullock. “But Bree’s vision sees opportunity, and we look at these as assets.”
Jenné Afiya Matthews was among those who met Jones in 2020 and was drawn to Parity’s work. She soon signed up to be part of the second cohort of a collective that will purchase homes. Alongside others, she participated in sessions to learn the ins and outs of homeownership, credit scores, the history of the community and what it means to be part of an intentional collective. Matthews grew up in West Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill, and saw how gentrification drove home values up to the point where it became impossible to live in the community where she grew up.
Matthews said the prospect of buying a home in Parity’s footprint will allow her to return to West Baltimore, and be part of an intentional effort to build community while keeping the fabric of the existing one intact.
“I want to be a part of something where I can get in at this level and really shape what the change looks like and what it feels like, and have it be a positive force,” Matthews said.
More funding and support has followed this year. In June, Jones was awarded a three-year, $225,000 fellowship through the Fund for New Leadership that will allow her to hire two staff members. Along with growing the team, Jones’ focus is on the work at the homes.
“My objective for the next six months is to focus on getting these first three houses built,” she said. The first three buyers are identified. Parity’s model is designed to be affordable. Homeowners don’t incur costs until houses are ready to move in, and grants help to defray costs, as well.
Alisa Williams, a lifelong city resident, is planning to buy a home in the community. She learned of Parity after her daughter joined the first homebuyers cohort, and now both are planning to move in.
“Purchasing our homes together in Harlem Park means that my daughter and I will be starting a legacy of homeownership together,” Williams said. “This journey is creating generational wealth and filling knowledge gaps for our family and our family’s future.”
Going forward, there is much to do. The groundbreaking marked the beginning of a process to transform homes. But the momentum that has been building offered an example that belief in the model is catching on. Along with the homeowners already signed on, some members come to cohort meetings even if they are still considering the neighborhood, or decided not to buy there. It can be a self-sustaining community as well as a development project.
As networks broaden, the crowd will grow.
“That’s truly what community is, it’s social bonds in close geographical proximity,” Jones said. “I’m just excited to see how our collective continues to blossom and evolve.”
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