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Rising Stars: Meet Caroline Leo

Today we’d like to introduce you to Caroline Leo.

Hi Caroline, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start, maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers?
At 70 years old, I’ve had many wonderful opportunities to be independent, creative, and inventive. In my 20s, I started as a fashion designer creating beautiful ball gowns and travel clothing for the DC embassy elite.

 In my 30s, I went back to college and graduated as an Interior Designer working for high-end clients in and around the DC & metropolitan areas. I had the good fortune of working with several custom home builders as their client liaison providing overall design plans, specialty product design and procurement, management, and on-site visibility during construction.

In 1991 I moved to Baltimore and opened a private studio for design, creating exciting designs for high-end clients in Baltimore, Howard counties, and throughout the city. For more than 20 years, DARE Designs, LLC participated annually in Decorator Showhouses for the Baltimore Symphony, Historic Ellicott City, Harford County Cancer Center, Anne Arundel Hospital Center, and several others to help raise funds for their efforts.

In my 40s, my husband, Leo, and I opened yet another company. We were invited to show and sell exceptional home, garden & gift items at wine festivals, Spring & Fall shows, decorator showhouse boutiques, prestigious holiday marketplaces, and smaller, local fundraisers for churches and community centers. We participated in as many as 25 boutiques shows a year from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.

In 2005 now in my 50s, we decided to open DARE Development, LLC to invest, renovate and provide community support to some of the most neglected, overlooked, and struggling neighborhoods on the city’s West Side. We chose blocks where generations of families had lived and were now struggling to stay afloat. Younger generations had moved out; houses had grown vacant development interest was non-existent.

We started small and bought our 1st house on a little one-way street where the existing homeowners/residents were well into their senior years and didn’t want to relocate or couldn’t afford to leave. To date, we have renovated 12 new homes on this block, increased the value, and created better housing opportunities for high-demand rentals with buyer options.

As we grew and became stronger as a crew, we were able to take on collapsed & burned-out buildings on several other blocks in and around Bon Secours hospital. We entered into agreements with the city and the hospital to create a low to middle-income market with affordable pricing to help diversify that footprint. To date, we accepted the challenge and have taken on whole block projects, renovated full gutt buildings to new.  In 2019 we initiated a rent-to-own program to help address the credit issues of potential buyers and perpetual tenants to help in their financial health to educate on the value and benefits of homeownership and legacy. To provide the needed support and guidance to ensure their success throughout the homeownership process.

To date – we have built over 100 units and continue participating in the blocks where we started. We have seen and taken joy in the impact and changes from our efforts. We are grateful that other community associations have asked us to join their revitalization efforts. The hurdles and roadblocks are immense in these neighborhoods. We know our time is a bit limited at our age, but we will finish what we started and, hopefully, will be able to pass along the value and ethics of conscious development to others who work with us along the way. It’s hard work, but you can’t imagine the rewards and joy until you’re there.

To see neighborhoods come alive again, families moving in, children playing, flowers planted, porch furniture placed, car washing, block parties. We are even starting to see existing homeowners investing money into their homes with improvements to keep the increased value of the block going! It’s amazing!

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been fairly smooth?
It’s never a smooth road to do what we do. In the areas where we are, the risk is higher for lenders – private or conventional to become involved. Most lenders want quick returns on their investments. These are not that kind of project. Launching a new area – takes patient money; it takes a bit more time for things to turn around. It takes time & education to work with tenants – who have never even considered the possibility of homeownership to realize the possibilities. It takes time & education to work with tenants/applicants on financial responsibility and accountability.

 Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of activity about ‘affordable’ housing, displacement, and gentrification. And many sources of grants have been put out there, but the limitations on that money are very specific and type cast. DARE Development, LLC is not a non-profit, black or Latina, so we don’t qualify.  The City continues to turn a blind eye to these kinds of neighborhoods.

In our neighborhoods, we have tenants/buyers working on all the aspects of personal improvement to qualify for homeownership. However, because there aren’t many movement values and comps don’t exist, our greatest hurdle coming up soon is that even though our homes are new and multiple homes on any given block, there will be a difference between an appraised value and what we actually put into the renovations. We don’t see any avenue to provide the tenant/buyer with the source of gap funding to make that purchase a reality.

My greatest fear is that the opportunity is a reality, but the reality will prove to be yet another disappointment for these potential, excited buyers.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
What do we do? We target blocks in underserved, neglected, and struggling neighborhoods with high vacancy percentages. We purchase/acquire as many as possible, looking for a majority percentage of vacant to renovate and revitalize that area. We create whole new neighborhoods.

 What do we specialize in? We have become experts in full gutted projects Collapsed buildings, fire damaged, condemned the worst of the worst we look for blocks where buildings have been vacant for 25+ years, and no one is interested in taking them on.

What are we known for? My design and custom home-building background have served us well! Our homes have all the amenities that tenants/buyers need and are looking for. Coat closets, linen closets, 8-10 cabinets and full-sized appliances in our kitchens, decorative and design forward elements throughout, open, airy, spacious 1st & 2nd floors, full-sized bedrooms, 5′ closets, large baths, laundry on 1st or 2nd floor, maintenance free exteriors, energy efficient windows, parking pads, enclosed patio courtyards. Everything new.

What am I most proud of? We have been able to continue our revitalization efforts despite the city, state, and lender obstacles in funding, etc. We have changed people’s lives, we have changed entire neighborhoods, and we continue to evolve in changes that meet the needs of those who want to improve their lives.

What sets us apart from others? We truly care about what happens to people in our blocks. We become immersed in the community issues. We become the ‘squeaky wheel’ on behalf of these neighborhoods for city change and improvements.

Let’s talk about our city – what do you love? What do you not love?
What do I like best about the city? There is so much opportunity to make improvements and make people’s lives better. I love the history and architecture throughout the city. We do a lot of research into the background of our blocks as well as hours of interviewing existing residents to get a better idea of how and why that community came about. It’s wonderful to hear the stories.

 What do I like least about the city? Mostly the arrogant attitudes of those in power making decisions. Self-serving non-profits who get all the grant money and then don’t perform. Grant money is disbursed based on a non-profit’s status, race, and gender, not on a developer’s track record, talent, or history.

The city can’t or won’t assist an active developer in a specific area who is revitalizing a neighborhood in securing or acquiring degraded lots or properties for that developer to continue those community improvements. The receivership program stinks — pits flippers, speculators & wholesalers against active developers in specific block areas.

The court system stinks. When a tenant goes bad, it takes months and months to evict it takes months and months to get to the district court for judgments. It takes the same process to remove unlawful occupants from buildings.

And now the order from the city to flagrantly issue $900 citations for vacant building owners. I agree that this would be effective for those speculators. Out-of-state investment funds and even owners who have died along the way where buildings have sat vacant for 35+ years, and nothing has been done, creating havoc and residents to flee, thereby leaving those blocks to crumble.

But as active developers since 2005, we are being pulled into Environmental Control Board hearings on blocks and in neighborhoods where we are actively working!!! Of course, as developers, we would have an inventory as we acquire houses to create a greater impact on revitalization.

They can’t have it both ways, and the destruction and demolition of whole blocks of beautiful buildings and, in many cases – perfectly fine buildings. If maybe the city would spend the demo $$ to stabilize, we have witnessed whole blocks of beautiful architecture being torn down, never to be built again.

Entire blocks of vacant lot wastelands are created without maintenance by the city or anyone else. Dumping grounds for trash, stash lots for drug dealers, graveyards for dead dogs. Departments are not taking responsibility for billing errors or taking years to make those adjustments. No one knows who to get block services, new/more street lamps now that people are living there, street signs that have fallen, vacant lot acquisition next to renovated homes.

Tax Sale:   need I say more! Tax Lien Certs is a great way to acquire buildings in neighborhoods that no one wants but holy cow! What a mess, what a process the city expects the cert buyer to pay expenses on the building from the date of the cert purchase without notice. How is it that a cert buyer ever pays any expenses on a building that isn’t owned yet? Hasn’t gone thru the foreclosure process?

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