NewsLocal News


An employee-owned cooperative is taking on Baltimore's vacant housing crisis

Posted at 8:06 PM, Jun 05, 2024

BALTIMORE — Most business owners aren't getting their hands dirty, like WaterBottles chairman David Lidz.

Climbing into a dumpster to show the new guys how to pack it correctly.

But that's the business model of WaterBottle, an employee-owned co-op focused on renovating and renting vacant homes in West Baltimore.

"You'll see a couple today that were practically ready to fall in on themselves and we turned them into fully renovated, comfortable, safe dwellings. Like there's a lot of pride in every moment of that project," said Lidz.

Newly hired employees working on grueling construction projects in West Baltimore have to wait 60 days.

Then they can decide to become employee owners who share in the co-op's profits.

The co-op allows them to make more money and not rely on government contracts or investors.

"So a shift in wage range from pre-co-op $11-$17 to today $18-$48," said Lidz.

WaterBottle doesn't always pick the easiest houses to renovate, either.

"They're structurally okay, but they look like they're about to fall in on themselves," said Lidz.

The process takes at least 10 months from beginning to end.

"If what they call the demising walls, the interior walls are okay, the rest we can pretty much rebuild. If those are starting to collapse, it's beyond salvaging," said Lidz.

Currently, they're working on about a dozen houses, with 10 already finished.

Turning vacant houses into livable units.

Renting them out at below-market rates.

"If we could rebuild neighborhoods, we would create equity, and so we wanted to have the equity we were creating stay in the neighborhoods or go to the workers who did the work rather than the clients we had in the past, which looks like extraction and ultimately gentrification," said Lidz.

Keeping that simple mission statement in mind, the workers, who are also the owners, continue the job.