Group practices what it preaches Providing housing for the disadvantaged

September 17, 1990|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

The Rev. David Pollitt calls it "a drop in the bucket." But if not for the work of the Light Street Housing Corp., the bucket might be nearly empty.

A consortium of local religious and community leaders, the non-profit corporation provides inexpensive housing for people who can't afford a decent place to live or are being squeezed out by the advancing gentrification of the area.

The corporation evolved from a program started six years ago by Light Street Presbyterian Church in South Baltimore, where Pollitt has been pastor since 1978. It already has renovated two properties -- Webster House, at 1614 Light St., for four single, low-income men, and Covenant House, at 1533 Light St., for two low-income families.

Now the Light Street Housing Corp. is about to tackle its most ambitious project, the renovation of four properties at 1513-19 Light St.

When opened next year, three of the properties will house low-income families, and the fourth, to be named Providence House, will serve as a transitional residence for troubled single women.

The budget for the renovation project, including the price paid by the corporation to the city for the four houses and the $20,000 salary for construction supervisor Tony Kordell, is $265,000.

Funds have been supplied by the Presbytery U.S.A., the national body of the denomination, and local churches, including $50,000 from Maryland Presbyterian Church in Towson and $35,000 from Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Dickeyville. Also, the state has given $90,000 to the project through a Maryland Housing Rehabilitation Program grant.

Work will soon start in earnest, though some interior work already has begun, says corporation executive director Cheryl McConnell.

About 200 volunteers from local churches will provide most of the labor, Pollitt says.

"On our previous two projects, we found that the volunteers didn't just come down for kicks. They keep coming back because they want to do more to help," he says.

"We're hoping that now, when we have Tony Kordell around as the construction supervisor, the volunteers can learn more about the various aspects of construction. It'll be sort of on-the-job training for them. They'll become better skilled for future construction projects we may have."

While most volunteers come from Presbyterian congregations, other faith groups have begun to work with the corporation. The organization used to be known as the Light Street Presbyterian Church Housing Corp. until the recent addition of Christ Lutheran Church of South Baltimore to the board. Pollitt says that a Jewish congregation from Howard County also may get involved in the corporation.

The rest of the 16-member board consists of representatives from seven local Presbyterian churches and seven community associations.

Pollitt points out that most of the volunteers come from suburban churches.

"You know, those people often get a bum rap just because they're out in the suburbs," the pastor says. "But they've done a tremendous job raising money for us and getting their hands dirty on the construction end of things. They're getting to practice what they preach."

Even with all the volunteers and all the experience, the corporation wouldn't have gotten off the ground or still be sustained without Pollitt, according to McConnell.

"He's the one who got it going, and he's the one who holds it together," she says.

"We started with the thought that, 'If you didn't need to make a profit, then surely a church like ours could find, buy and renovate houses for low-income people,'" says Pollitt.

The rents at the Webster and Covenant Houses are slightly more than $100 per unit. Each tenant pays the rent through his or her own earnings, which are sometimes supplemented by public assistance money.

McConnell has been on the job since August 1989. She previously had worked for a non-profit housing corporation in Pittsburgh. When she first came to the Light Street Housing Corp., she feared that the people it was trying to help would be subjected to proselytizing.

"It hasn't been that way at all," she says. "That's what's impressed me about this group. Most of the people involved may be very avid church people, but they don't make religion a condition of helping others."

Pollitt says the corporation is "looking at a window of the next five to eight years when houses can be bought and renovated, before the whole process gets too expensive for us to continue."

The board is uncertain what it will do if that time ever comes, he adds, "but we've been discussing it. We've raised the question of getting more affordable properties elsewhere in the city and the suburbs."

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