The three-story homes on Biddle Street, boarded up, blistered and blighted, may not look very different from their neighbors up and down the street. But pretty soon, they’ll take on a new purpose in the neighborhood.

Throughout Johnston Square, homes are being brought back to life as part of an $80 million overhaul in East Baltimore. ReBUILD Metro, a nonprofit, Baltimore-based developer, is reviving the neighborhood whole blocks at a time, infusing the community with new housing, street improvements and public amenities.

Their work includes recruiting 45 school staffers to live in those 15 Biddle Street homes — an arrangement ReBUILD Metro has dubbed “teacher housing.”

The organization plans to offer school employees a reduced rate to live there, ReBUILD Metro president Sean Closkey said. Early-career educators, teacher aides and other school staff will able to rent for $700 a month and access a free clubhouse space designed with school personnel in mind, with a printer, desks and a dry-erase board. They aim to fit three school employees per home, with each having access to their own bedroom and bathroom plus a shared kitchen and living room space.

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The goal isn’t to exclude people who work other jobs, Closkey said. Fair housing law in Maryland prohibits denying someone access to housing based on source of income. But only teachers will be offered the discounted rent, while everyone else would pay the market rate.

The goal is simple: ReBUILD Metro wants to create a vibrant, “mixed-income” community in Johnston Square that entices more young professionals who could eventually become homeowners. The below-market rents can make their first years on the job more bearable, Closkey said.

“It’s a tough profession, and every one of us knows a young teacher,” he said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner in November. “To take some of the burden of the housing cost down, we think that’s a good way to improve some of the social-emotional costs of teaching, and honor them.”

Young teachers, Closkey said, also represent one end of an income bracket — one they’re trying to add more of in Johnston Square.

“What we have to do to make an income-integrated community, is make sure all options are available across the spectrum,” Closkey said. “And unless you’re building neighborhoods that are welcoming to everybody, it’s not going to work.”

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Offering rent relief to “front-line” and lower-wage workers, such as teachers, is one way developers, lawmakers and local officials are attempting to build more income-inclusive neighborhoods. It’s gaining traction as jurisdictions across the country race to put forward solutions to dueling housing supply and affordability challenges — which Maryland’s highest-ranking housing official has labeled a “crisis.”

The challenges, housing policy experts say, have been exacerbated by people who oppose measures that could help diversify communities in other ways. Last week, in Howard County, the County Council allowed a bill package to expire that would have placed an annual cap on rent prices and allowed nonprofit groups to purchase and preserve some units as affordable. In Anne Arundel County, a bill that would have incentivized more development also failed to pass last week.

Affordable housing also has become more difficult to finance in an unforgiving real estate economy with high mortgage interest rates, inflation and materials costs. It can spur intense, and unpleasant, conversations about community character, traffic and school crowding. Around Maryland and elsewhere in the U.S., some development projects have dead ended, faced challenges in court or endured expensive delays as communities push back against policies and plans that could make their neighborhoods more dense, more affordable and potentially more inclusive.

As affordable housing projects and policies stall elsewhere, Closkey said the first few teacher homes should land before the start of the next academic year. But some have raised questions about the strategy — including the state’s highest ranking housing official, who said it does not address the root cause of the housing crisis.

“It’s a messaging tool,” said Jacob R. Day, secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. “It’s true that what we pay our local government workers — teachers, police officers, water and sewer technicians, or public works garbage truck operators — is insufficient. And that’s a motivator for public officials because you’re responsible for those people.

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“The rest of the population is in just as bad of a situation,” he added. “Collectively, you’ve got a huge population that are all in need and deserving of housing.”

A banner advertising housing in Johnston Square in June 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

It’s not just teachers who are being courted. Last year, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, for example, spearheaded the “Essential Worker Housing Access Act,” a bill that attempted to increase the number of affordable units available for people who earn less than the area median income. Pittman, in an interview earlier this year, said while there is no formal definition of essential worker that the county would use to determine eligibility, the new housing options would have ideally included a range of professionals who cannot afford to live in the county now: “Teachers and police and maybe even service workers,” Pittman said. The bill ultimately failed on a narrow 4-3 margin, which Pittman blamed on a pressure campaign waged by developers who would sacrifice profit to build affordable units.

Meanwhile, in Downtown Baltimore, the Baltimore Development Corp. in 2018 selected Landmark Partners to build a more than 60-unit apartment building with one-fifth set aside for Baltimore fire and police officers. Landmark broke ground on the project in 2022 and will set aside units for first responders who earn no more than 80% of the area median income, which the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development defines as about $75,000 for a two-person household or $66,300 for a one-person household in the Baltimore metro region.

And in October, Mayor Brandon Scott signed into law a bill that approves the sale of a former schoolhouse in Waverly to a developer who aims to build a zero-energy “teachers’ village” with about three dozen apartments at affordable rates for teachers and paraeducators. City housing commissioner Alice Kennedy, in a May 2023 memo, said the project would promote camaraderie and encourage teacher retention.

ReBUILD has started reaching out to potential teacher-residents through Teach for America and Saint Frances Academy, a nearby Catholic high school that reports being the oldest continuously operating Black Catholic school in the country.

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Closkey said other projects in Johnston Square — a 48,000-square foot warehouse space called Machine Works, for example — will be geared toward artists in an effort to entice more creatives to live and work in the area. Others will be marketed toward larger families, he added. A yet-to-be-built, 109-unit apartment building also will set aside 12 units for people earning below 30% of the area median income level and the rest for people earning between 31% and 80% of the area median income.

Johnston Square, situated slightly north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and to the east of the University of Baltimore, could eventually offer something for everyone, Closkey said.

“In the neighborhood, we have multiple different types of financial preferences, from massive subsidies to first-time homebuyers,” Closkey said. “Each one targets a different group or income, and when you zoom back, you will see an income-integrated place, where you can find a house with [about] 20% of the area median income to 100%.”

But to some, occupation-based housing projects raise questions about who ultimately will be welcome in communities and why only some professions are being favored, said Ashley “Ash” Esposito, executive director of Baltimore Renters United.

Esposito said occupation-restrictive housing projects could make integrated communities harder to access and more difficult to usher into reality.

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“I urge us to explore solutions that are inclusive of people across all income levels and industries, avoiding exclusivity in access to affordable housing,” Esposito said.

In a December interview, Day said while he understands the strategy, he also has concerns about avoiding tough conversations and legislation that can make neighborhoods more socially and economically diverse across the spectrum.

He and state lawmakers are considering taking steps starting in 2024 to incentivize more housing production at low and reduced prices. The state also is helping to finance ReBUILD Metro’s work in Johnston Square, selecting it as one of two awardees for a $10 million grant and loan pilot program called Homeownership Works that will help build new housing and rehabilitate existing units.

It’s not yet clear how successful the state’s attempts will be at producing more affordability, but Day said there are ways the state can influence better policies, protect people at the lowest income brackets and add more housing supply — all without occupation-based housing.

“We have a massive affordability crisis that is built upon foundation of a housing supply shortage,” Day said. “We need more housing, more mixed-income housing, more housing options and greater supply.”