Pamela and Christian Wilson started a nonprofit to feed the homeless of Baltimore. Now they'll build 13 small houses for them. (Baltimore Sun staff)
I think it would be accurate and appropriate to call Pamela and Christian Wilson the most determined-to-do-good couple in Baltimore. They won’t say it. I just did. I might be wrong, but I doubt it.
I first met them for coffee in their Charles Village home in 2017. At the time, the Wilsons had a singular charitable undertaking: They supplied the ingredients of “weekend survival kits” for the 110 homeless children who were then attending six of Baltimore’s elementary schools.
The Wilsons, who moved to the city 22 years ago, are both retired from careers in the maritime insurance trade. After learning about — and becoming distressed about — the number of kids whose families were homeless, the Wilsons established a nonprofit, Heart’s Place Services, to raise funds to fill backpacks with enough nonperishable food items to get a distressed family of three through a weekend.
After a few years, when the Wilsons surveyed the principals of the schools they served, each reported positive results: Students who received the weekend backpacks showed improved attendance and grades, and they had fewer behavioral problems. Monday moods were generally better. One principal reported an “increase in joy.”
Minutes after the Wilsons briefed me on their backpack project, they announced their next ambition — to provide housing for homeless people. Specifically, they wanted to convert cargo containers to modest houses and make them available at affordable prices.
The Wilsons were not real estate developers, but they knew a lot about the shipping industry. They believed that, from a glut of surplus cargo containers sitting in Baltimore and other ports, they could obtain the makings of new housing and raise enough money for the conversions.
I wrote a couple of columns about this idea. Around the country, surplus cargo containers have been converted to small houses — and, in some cases, multiple containers have been converted into large houses and even apartment buildings.
So the Wilsons set out to see if a small village within Baltimore was feasible. They enlisted an architect to sketch up plans for a row of container homes and they looked into acquiring some city-owned vacant lots to set them on. They called their project Hope Village. They wanted to sell the homes for $25,000 each.
That was a pretty grand ambition hatched on the dining room table of a Baltimore rowhouse. But, as I said, these are two determined people, with business acumen, and they were willing to confront the bureaucracy, banks and builders to make their project happen.
Here’s the update: While using cargo containers as the basic frame for the homes turned out to be unfeasible, Hope Village is still going to happen. In fact, the groundbreaking takes place in July, a testament to the Wilsons’ commitment to help the working poor of Baltimore.
These people have true grit.
They worked the container idea as far as they could, but in the end they could not find a contractor willing to take on the conversions.
“The container idea is an extremely valid one, but the construction industry in Baltimore is not prepared to undertake a move toward container construction,” Christian Wilson says. “We spoke with many groups that indicated that they could assist us in this program. But the costs of used containers increased substantially, and there was a concern that used shipping containers may have hazardous material. It was one issue after another. After considerable time spent speaking to several companies, I decided that the idea could not be accomplished.
“So the issue of constructing homes out of steel shipping containers would be fought another day by someone with more power and prestige.”
The Wilsons switched to a more conventional building plan and found help with financing from Harbor Bank of Maryland. Iconic Construction will build 13 houses out of wood in the Oliver community, on land the Wilsons acquired from the city in 2020. The 400-square-foot homes, with wraparound porches, will be for families of the working poor who have experienced homelessness.
“In order to ensure [they] are successful as homeowners,” Christian Wilson says, “we have required that the candidates for homeownership take a course in budgeting and financial planning so that they understand not only the loan they are going to receive, but basic financial planning and budgeting.”
The course is free and provided by Operation Hope, a national program, with an office in Baltimore, that has helped thousands of new homeowners. Graduate students of the University of Maryland School of Social Work will help Hope Village families with the transition to homeownership.
The Wilsons have been cobbling together grants and other funds to reduce the per-unit costs. Developer Mark Sapperstein, his company and family have been big supporters since learning about the Wilsons’ efforts in this column. Sapperstein’s firm, 28 Walker, will cover the difference between the actual cost and the selling price of the houses.
The Wilsons are getting a landscaping plan for the village from the Neighborhood Design Center.
Anne London, a financial planner, has been working on collecting furniture; the plan is to sell the homes fully furnished. Brooke Kaine, a financial analyst, has been supporting the Wilsons, too.
“So many people have contacted us over the years,” Christian Wilson says. “Everyone who has worked on this project has donated money, time and expertise in order to see it through to completion. We all believe in this project.”