A’21: Building houses and community with Shelley Halstead of Black Women Build-Baltimore

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A Baltimore building program puts home ownership within reach for Black women.

According to the Baltimore Housing Authority, an estimated 16,000 homes sat vacant in the city in 2020. To the average passerby, these properties—missing windows, doors and occasionally walls—may seem long past their expiration date and destined for the wrecking ball.

Shelley Halstead, however, sees things differently. Halstead is the founder of Black Women Build–Baltimore, a homeownership and wealth-building initiative she’s been running since 2017. She’s also a carpenter by training and a community-builder by calling, and she saw an opportunity to bring value to blocks of Baltimore that had suffered disinvestment for decades—while providing area women with some practical skills and, ultimately, the option of buying a home.

“I really was just trying to put something together that spoke to not only my ability, but my idea about how to build wealth with Black women,” Halstead told host Roman Mars on day 3 of AIA’s virtual 2021 Conference on Architecture. “Baltimore was the perfect city to try this. The housing stock is inexpensive and it’s also very deteriorated, so I could put my skills to use.”

After moving from D.C. to West Baltimore, a historically redlined area of the city that is also frequently a target for demolition, Halstead began to strategize. She started by targeting vacant houses on a city block that was empty save for one long-term resident, who had been living in the same home and tending to her garden since 1947.

“That was the deciding factor for me to really fight for this block,” Halstead said. “She still loved it. She wasn’t holed up in there, she’s out there tending to the neighborhood.”

Halsted’s organization has so far rehabbed four homes on the block. “She’s so excited to have neighbors again,” Halstead said of the woman who has been living there for more than half a century. “It’s beautiful to see what was, because we’re bringing it back to what could be and what will be.”

While the empty houses that Halstead purchased through the city of Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program had sturdy and intact exteriors, the interiors were a different matter.

“I was a carpenter, but I wasn’t a magician,” Halstead said. “It was a little daunting, trying to wrap my brain around how to do this.” She learned skills from small-scale developers and others in the community who were working on the same types of gut rehab projects, which she was then able to pass on to women in the program.

“That’s the spark I enjoy with the women I work with—that there was nothing, and now there’s something,” she said.

Women interested in participating in the program can apply online and go through an interview process with Halstead and the organization’s board.

“Baltimore is a city where rents are astronomical compared to housing prices,” Halstead explained. “You can buy thousands of houses for under $60, $70, $80,000. They need a ton of work, so who buys those are investors.”

“It’s very difficult to be a homeowner in a town where the houses need a lot of work, and the ones that don’t need a lot of work are actually out of reach for a lot of people,” Halstead continued. Many houses in traditionally redlined and disinvested areas can’t be insured because the houses on either side are vacant, “and there are no backs and there are trees growing out of them,” she said. For these same reasons, it’s difficult to get a home loan.

“There are all these little things that can trip up someone with a wage-earning job” and prevent them from being a homeowner, she said.

Mars asked, “What are key elements of making a home a place people want to be in and take care of?” For Halstead, it can be boiled down to three simple things: skylights, heated bathroom floors, and hardwoods throughout. “It makes it feel like you cared,” Halstead says.

Because the houses are located in a historic district, restoring the masonry exteriors—including repointing brick, restoring cornices, and making sure the signature Baltimore bullnose window casings are intact—gives the buyer a tax credit, so that they aren’t hit with an $80,000 assessment when their taxes are re-assessed. Rather, the value of the home will increase incrementally over the years.

Working with a Baltimore architect, Halstead was able to come up with workable floor plans for the houses’ relatively small footprints—and then figure out how to execute them. “We’re really hands-on,” she said. “I think it’s important to demystify what’s behind the walls. They [participants] get to see how things are connected. [They’re] going to know that what’s behind those walls is solid. Electricity is scary for people, and it’s not so scary anymore. A faucet leaking is, like, ‘Oh, well, it could be a washer, it could be I need to tighten this thing’ – it’s the problem-solving [part] as well.”

Halstead has been working on three houses at a time with participants over a four-month span, and will have completed six by the end of this year. Her organization is already affecting meaningful change, affecting the lives of a handful of new and soon-to-be-homeowners—change that she hopes others might be able to replicate in other cities. In the meantime, one transformed block is enough.  

“You enter that block now and you see it,” she says. “You’re like, ‘Something’s happening here.’ People are coming and going from work now. You’re on your stoop—Baltimore is a stoop city. You’re on your stoop, talking to your neighbor. It’s exciting.”