Habitat for Calamity
East Baltimore neighbors, each living in Habitat for Humanity homes, struggle to be neighborly
Published: October 23, 2013
Joe McCard has a security camera looking out his front window. The surveillance system cost him $600, he says, but that’s less than it cost to replace the four tires that were slashed on his car on Aug. 3.
“I am under police watch,” he says—meaning they drive by now and again.
This is the 2100 block of Jefferson Street. The whole block is under police watch, as is most of the neighborhood. The blue lights flash on the corner poles.
No one knows who vandalized McCard’s car, or who busted the back door of his nicely rehabbed rowhouse. McCard has a pretty good idea who did it though: neighbors across the street.
Like McCard, they live in homes they bought from Habitat for Humanity.
“I’m dealing with people who have a different idea of lifestyle,” says McCard, who has called police dozens of times, complaining about his neighbors. “And it’s a conflict.”
In Baltimore, you piss off the neighbors, your windows get smashed, your tires get slashed. It is such a common thing in this city that many people think it’s normal. But it’s not the kind of thing that Habitat for Humanity endorses. “We’re sort of feeling like we need to protect Joe,” says Anne Rouse, Chesapeake Habitat’s director of family services.
McCard says Habitat at first offered to move him to another house, and then reneged.
Joe McCard has allies. Glenn Ross, a McElderry Park fixture and fixer, says McCard is being harassed by drug dealers. His across-the-street neighbor, Evelyn Collins, says something similar.
“He is a person that wants to see everything done good and neat and tidy,” Collins, who has lived on the block since the early 1980s, says, adding that McCard’s antagonists—some of them fellow Habitat homeowners—“are people from the ghetto and they never had nothing nice. So they get together and cause trouble.”
Habitat rehabbed 11 houses on this block. These are some of the dozens of houses Chesapeake Habitat has built in and adjacent to the McElderry Park neighborhood, just east of the sprawling and ever-expanding Johns Hopkins medical campus. Habitat has also managed street cleanups and other activities, sometimes bringing hundreds of volunteers at a time. Collins says Habitat has improved things immensely. Since she has lived in the neighborhood, from 1981 on, she says, “it was drugs everywhere. Habitat cleaned it up, but when they were choosing the people, somehow they got the trashy people.”
Not Joe McCard, though. “He used to be nice to them,” she says. “He’s single, has his own home and dresses very, very elegantly. And no one can get to him. So they decided to take him down.”
McCard answers his door in a suit on a Wednesday afternoon and ushers a guest to his dining room table, which has a formal place setting already out. He’s a compact man with cropped gray hair and glasses.
The house is cluttered—furniture too close together amid Star Wars models and a lot of paper in folders. He keeps records of every 311 call he makes, he says.
The trouble started after McCard returned from a poll-sitting job in April of 2012. The neighbors were partying on their stoop, he says, so he called it in about 10:30 p.m. “I gave them my crime-watch number like I always do.”
The last call was at 11:40, he says, and police spoke to the neighbors.
McCard says there was a lot of noise on weekdays during the summer. He finally spoke to the man of the house; asked him to have the family please be respectful of those wishing to hit the sack. The man said he’d do it, but it didn’t get better, McCard says. “I had to go to mediation.”
“I asked Drew [Bennett, president of the neighborhood association] if he could he speak with Mr. Joe,” says Taylor Faye. “Mr. Joe was harassing a lot of people, and I don’t want him to get hurt. Drew spoke to him for like an hour. It didn’t work.”
Faye lives in the house McCard says he has trouble with. She’s been there four years, she says, with her daughter and teenage son. She actually did some work on her Habitat house herself before she knew it would be hers. She says her block is “tight-knit” and that neighbors watch out for each other.
“He’s a decent person,” Faye says of McCard. “We have all come to a consensus that he has some underlying mental issues he has to deal with.” Asked to elaborate, she says, “If you tell a joke and I laugh too loud, he’ll call the police.”
McCard, who grew up in Randallstown, says he is used to a quiet street. He says Habitat at first offered him a home in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is a lot worse, he says, so he moved in here.
“I didn’t think my property would be damaged,” he says.
McCard says he called police when Faye’s son threw a football that hit his car.
Later, his back door was busted out. He replaced the glass with plexiglass. “I was shocked that I’m dealing with this kind of element,” McCard says.
“There’s nothing wrong with Joe,” says Rouse, Habitat’s director of family services. “And there is nothing wrong with . . . Faye and those neighbors.”
Rouse remembers a meeting last summer with McCard and another neighborhood person and the Baltimore Police Eastern District commander. “It felt like we were going to try in absentia the other homeowners,” she says.
Rouse made it clear that she could not be a part of that: “I said we have to talk about the positive things . . . but the decision was we can’t set a precedent of moving someone out of a house when they become uncomfortable there.”
There is no money in Habitat for Humanity’s budget for that, she says.
Rouse says she never promised McCard he could move to Orchard Ridge. She did hold out the possibility that it might happen after McCard told her his mom would move in with him, making him more eligible for the three- or four-bedroom homes there. But, she says, “as many people do, Joe heard what he wanted to hear.” When she called back later to tell him that the board had nixed the idea, she says, “Joe was very upset. He was angry.”
Chesapeake Habitat has begun efforts to help its residents learn how to be community leaders, Rouse says. They are encouraged to join their neighborhood association, to speak up, volunteer, and build social capital. These are not easy things for people who spent their lives renting in tough neighborhoods, often moving every year or six months, she says: “The very skills that help you survive as a single person in a neighborhood can get in the way when you try to build a community. . . . you have to trust people and rely on them.”
This is the plan for McCard, Rouse says. He will be invited to another meeting, where he’ll be encouraged to direct his energies in a more positive direction. “What I can tell you is that today, Warren Branch, Councilman Branch called,” Rouse says. Habitat will “ask him to come in and ask him what can we do to help [Joe] feel safer in the community.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.