Trish Ofori Tackles Baltimore’s Vacant Housing Crisis One Creative Hub At A Time

Photos courtesy of Trish Ofori.

Five years ago, Trish Ofori came to Baltimore City with an idea: combining her 13 years of real estate experience with her love of art and Black culture. 

After a decade selling homes and developing residential properties in Washington D.C., she bought a mixed-use building in Mount Vernon and transformed the historic, three-story property into a haven for Black creatives called the Akwaaba House. While the top two levels are available for renters and events, the ground floor is home to Nubian Hueman — a boutique offering apparel, art, and beauty products by Black and brown designers. 

Now, the  real estate agent and founder of Ofori & Co., a boutique real estate sales and investment company, is expanding her work in Baltimore with a new venture aimed at eradicating the city’s vacant housing crisis while building its already vibrant creative community. With a nonprofit called Make Space Ofori plans to convert 20 vacant houses in Mount Clare into live-work spaces for artists, boosting home ownership and investment in the neighborhood. 

As part of the program, participants will receive mentorship from national and local leaders in housing, finance, entrepreneurship and art, educational training related to home ownership, financial preparedness, and business development, and the opportunity to host workshops, listening sessions, and other immersive art experiences for members of the Mount Clare community.

We sat down with Ofori to discuss the goals of her endeavor, the team behind it, as well as what to expect from Make Space in the weeks and months ahead.

The interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity. 

What inspired you to start Make Space?

I’ve always had this idea to kind of merge real estate and art culture, but there’s a couple of people that I got inspired from. Theaster Gates is one in Chicago who was doing these projects that really weave Black culture and art into the real estate space. Maybe about five years ago, I went to visit his buildings and also the Bell Hooks Center in Kentucky, and I just started formulating my own ideas from there. 

I’ve just seen the synergy that this type of development — mixed use commercial but really focused on creative entrepreneurs —brought to neighborhoods, how it sparked the neighborhood and how people got excited about what was going on. The Make Space program was really me trying to develop an idea that I had in my mind about focusing on artists and creatives and what I think will be the impact of bringing them into neighborhoods, making them more sustainable, safer and just filled with more life. 

How were you able to pull together the resources to launch a program like this?

I started a nonprofit in 2020. We ended up winning a grant from the [Baltimore City], so the journey really started from there.

The network that I’ve created over the past 13 years, the people that I’ve known, the work that I’ve done, that’s how I pulled it together. 

Who makes up the team at Make Space, aside from yourself?

I have two [primary] people. One is working on the program design of the accelerator program, which means the education part of the program. I also have a freelance graphic designer that has been working with me for the past two or three years.

I’ve also had a lot of women work with me, and some men too. For the program, we’re doing an opening event, and we’ve had a gentleman that’s helped us put that together. I have another brother that’s gonna help me with the documentary that we’re doing. I have a contractor that I’m pulling in. I have a lot of good people around me. 

Why include an educational component in the program?

There’s a lot of vacant properties in Baltimore City, and I wanted to do more work in Black and brown communities. But it’s not just enough to build houses. A lot of people are doing that. We wanted to create a community focused on artists and creatives in Baltimore City and wrap that other [educational programming] in. 

The people that go through our education program will be the people that buy the houses.

You mentioned previously that you’re working with someone to produce a documentary about Make Space. Why include that in the process?

The whole objective of Make Space is to create a model. What I’m interested in right now is not building houses. I want to focus on building models that are sustainable, so doing houses is really just the catalyst or the tool that we’re going to use. I’m into documentaries, and I see the power of documenting stuff and archiving stuff. And maybe people right now aren’t going to be that interested. But when you document stuff, people can see what worked and what didn’t work, and they can have a taste for what was going on. 

We also want to create enough buzz so that we can get some funding and some support on a bigger level to take this project and make it replicable for other people to either use our model and put their own spin on it or use our model like us to help eradicate the vacant housing crisis.

What does the timeline for the program look like going forward?

Right now we’re going through the applications and reaching out to applicants who will make it to round one. I would say by April 15, our mentors and our first cohort will be chosen. 

May 21 is going to be our opening event. It’s going to be a fundraiser. We’re also doing a silent auction to raise money to help support this program. After the Memorial Day holiday, we will start our eight-hour online training. We’re bringing in different people from JP Morgan Chase, from PNC Bank, from National Housing Service (NHS), and from Baltimore, people from [the Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network] BCAN, which is a local art organization, Impact Hub, Innovation Works. So we’re starting that training June 3 and 4. 

The next weekend after that, we’re going to do a walking tour which is going to be open to [the public] and we’re going to do a walking tour just to look at the houses we’re going to be working on and [to establish] our vision for that block, that area. 

The timeline really starts from there. This is a program that will run from about May to September. It’s 60 hours, and it’s hands on.

What were you looking for in applicants?

Baltimore City natives, first. People that have been in Baltimore City for a while or are native to Baltimore City and have a community-based art practice. We need people that have a long-term vision because it’s a neighborhood that is a little rough moving into, so we’re looking for people that are committed to Baltimore.

What are your long-term goals for the program?

We’re doing 20 houses. We want to get enough buzz around the project to create a fund, so we’re able to fund the appraisal gap, which is the gap between the cost to build and how much the house is worth. That’s why there’s so many vacant houses in Baltimore City, along with a lot of other reasons.

We hope that other developers start to use the Make Space model. They can tweak the model, you know, maybe they’re not working with artists, maybe they tweak it to something else. But the goal is for Baltimore City, for some of these foundations, some of these entities to see what’s going on, see that it works, and create a source of funding specifically for what we call the Make Space model, and that people can use this model of education program, community building, and housing.

What about Baltimore drives you to continue investing in the city and its creative community?

We want positive things to happen. We want to get drugs and prostitution off the street, to get people who haven’t had a chance to be homeowners to become homeowners, to get residents to realize that they have a voice and choice and get more energy into the neighborhood. I mean, there’s a lot of good people in the neighborhood, but sometimes there are only so many resources. 

When you have more energy around something, there’s more people that are fighting with you, and now suddenly the struggle becomes a little bit easier. So the goal really is to get people in the neighborhood that can help the current residents in whatever they’re trying to work on for the neighborhood. If it’s cleaning up the streets, if it’s getting more activities for kids, if it’s greening, greening up the neighborhoods, whatever the community wants, we just want to help get people in, give people affordable housing, and get people connected with community

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