How the Enterprise Foundation Is Helping The Working Poor Buy Homes and Save Their Neighborhoods in the Process


July 21, 1991|By EDWARD GUNTS

Just another night outside St. Peter Claver Church in Sandtown. A prostitute in a purple tank top and black Lycra pants gobbles down the last of her Chinese carryout dinner and jumps into the passenger side of a beat-up Chevy heading north on Pennsylvania Avenue. Two old men trade swigs from a whiskey bottle while sitting on the steps of a boarded-up row house a block down from the Sphinx Club. A toddler in the doorway of the corner carryout, waiting for his mother to place her food order, stares wide-eyed as a police helicopter zooms by overhead.

Just another muggy night in Sandtown. Or is it?

Down in the basement of the old Catholic church, one level and half a world away from the whiskey bottles in the gutter and ramshackle buildings and prostitutes, is a far brighter scene: Seven women from the neighborhood gathered around a small table, eyes closed, imagining what it will be like to own a house in the area.

"I'm going to enjoy the yard, especially in the warmer months," says one.

"I'm going to like the living room and the kitchen," says another.

"What I'm going to enjoy most is not having a landlord," says a third. "Not having to call the landlord every time something goes wrong."

It may seem unusual that anyone with money enough to buy a house would even consider doing so in a neighborhood as rough as Sandtown, much less look forward to it. But this isn't business as usual. These women -- some young, some old, but all examples of the "working poor" who have never had a house of their own -- are among the first of 300 low-income buyers of new town houses that are being built this summer in sections of Baltimore's Penn-North and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods, some just a few blocks from the dangerous drug and crime zone near the church itself.

Instead of fleeing the area, these buyers are making a commitment to invest in it and turn it back into the safe, reputable neighborhood it used to be. They are so committed to the idea that they're coming to the church on weeknights for hourlong workshops on budget management, home maintenance and "community empowerment," courses that the builders of the houses are sponsoring to make them better owners. Everyone is operating under the premise that, once they move in, it won't be just another night in Sandtown.

"We want to build a community, not just put you in a home," one of the workshop leaders tells buyers. "We want to build the whole neighborhood up."

IN ITS CURRENT STATE, SANDTOWN may seem to have little in common with the glitz and glitter of Baltimore's Harborplace, the waterfront pleasure domes whose opening in 1980 did more than anything else to spark the revitalization of the Inner Harbor. But they do share one important element: the watchful eye of urban visionary Jim Rouse.

If Baltimore's pre-Harborplace waterfront typified the blighted commercial districts where this nationally prominent developer focused his attention during his last years as head of the Rouse Co., Sandtown is representative of the even more squalid areas that he wants to rejuvenate today. It is also the first of three communities around the nation to be chosen for a "neighborhood transformation demonstration project" of the Enterprise Foundation, the non-profit organization that 77-year-old Mr. Rouse and his wife, Patty, founded nearly 10 years ago to provide fit and livable housing for the poor.

Accorded near-legendary status for his work at the Rouse Co. -- creating some of the nation's first enclosed shopping centers, launching the city of Columbia, and revitalizing center cities with festival markets such as Faneuil Hall and Harborplace, among other feats -- Mr. Rouse raised eyebrows 10 years ago when, instead of retiring, he began working full time to help the poor. Since its founding, Enterprise has helped 130 neighborhood groups in 60 cities build or rehabilitate 15,000 houses -- more than any other organization of its kind in the country.

But despite Enterprise's accomplishments so far, Mr. Rouse says, many people still don't believe anything can really be done to reverse the deterioration of human beings at the bottom of society. So now that Enterprise has demonstrated what can be done to rehabilitate housing, he wants to take the process to the next level and put more emphasis on rehabilitating whole communities -- and the people who live there.

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