When James W. Rouse started fighting urban blight in 1949, some Baltimore neighborhoods were overrun with rats and some homes were not linked to the city's sewage system.
Since then, things have gotten better. And they have gotten worse.
"There are different problems, but there are more of them," said Rouse, the legendary developer who built the town of Columbia and urban "festival" marketplaces such as Harborplace. He now heads the Columbia-based Enterprise Development Co. and the Enterprise Foundation, which raises money for low-income housing.
"We still have rats in the city, but they're not that bad. So many of those crushing problems at the bottom were cured, but it wasn't nearly as desolate then as it is now. We didn't have the homelessness, we didn't have the drugs, we didn't have the crime and we didn't have the decline in public education," he said.
In the face of those problems, the Enterprise Foundation is holding its ninth annual network conference this weekend to discuss ways to help build affordable housing in urban areas. The three-day event of training sessions, discussion groups and workshops begins tomorrow at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel.
The luncheon speaker tomorrow is U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2nd, D-Mass., whose topic is "Solving the Problem of Housing the Poor: What Must We Do."
Enterprise has been doing something since Rouse started the foundation with his wife, Patricia, in 1982. It currently is spearheading a campaign to raise $50 million for low-income housing in Baltimore and 29 other cities. The money would fund 100 community-housing groups.
Rouse said in a recent interview that he was concerned that the weak economy could hamper his organization's ability to raise money for housing.
"I think when you get a softened economy it stretches across everything and it's a lot harder to raise money," he said. "And, as these conditions tighten, the government tightens. If they pull back on the money going into housing, it's going to be very damaging, very damaging."
Rouse chaired a national housing task force that laid the foundation for three housing bills that are pending in Congress. He said he remains optimistic that more federal money will go to housing to make up for the dry funding years of the Reagan administration.
"There is hope that there will be some increase in the funds going into housing," he said. "There is no way of substituting for the loss of federal funds if there is a loss."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development budget has risen under Bush. It was $14.3 billion in 1989, but increased to $18.4 billion in the last fiscal year. The budget request for fiscal 1991 is $23.7 billion, which could rise more under a HUD appropriations bill pending in Congress, a department spokesman said yesterday.
The increases will be needed. With the economy on the brink of recession, private lending institutions are likely to be even less willing to provide low-income housing loans, Rouse said.
"The slump in the economy is likely to hurt the poor more than anybody else," he said. "The debacle in the savings and loans and now the trouble in the commercial banks is creating a much more conservative attitude toward lending as well as much less money to lend. The easiest people to cut are the poor because they're not customers. They haven't got any quid pro quo."
Asked whether the poor and community groups serving them would have to wait until the economy improves before seeking more help, Rouse replied with a look of determination: "We've got to find some way of raising money to help. We've got to struggle to get more money from the government, from the private foundations. We've got to find some way to do this."
Paul Washington, assistant to the chairman of the Dime Savings Bank of New York, said the sluggish economy may cause private donors to cut back on their charitable contributions.
"The hope is that in a period of retrenchment, people will focus on housing," he said. "The question is whether housing will be on a short list of charities. Jim Rouse is doing a phenomenal job of making sure that it is."
Washington said low-income housing investments can be profitable if packaged with local and federal government subsidy programs. He said his bank, which donates money to Enterprise, has invested $85 million in low-income developments in the last decade, and all of them have been successful.
"We're finding that affordable housing is one of the best investments you can make," he said, adding that a pent-up demand exists. "If you do your homework, these can be wonderful investments."
Barbara Samuels, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Bureau's Housing Law Center in Baltimore, said she appreciated the efforts of private industry, but asserted that only state and federal programs reach the very poor.
Samuels said Maryland officials should adopt a clear housing policy and raise spending for people who need emergency shelter and those who have additional problems, including foster children and people with AIDS.
"If we don't wake up, we're going to start looking like New York City, where there are 5,000 homeless people with AIDS," she said.