Landlord tries great experiment in home therapy

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 06, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some people think Fred Rovecamp's a little crazy. He's not exactly building castles in the air, but he's selling homes to some folks who never dreamed they could have a place of their own.

It isn't supposed to happen this way: Not for Rovecamp, and not for some who are buying from him. A Dundalk native, 48 years old, Rovecamp started adult life following most of his family into the steel mills, the lock step professional legacy of generations of working-class East Baltimoreans. He stayed 12 years and ran for his life.

"I got a look," he says, "at what I didn't want to do."

Fifteen years ago, he started figuring out what he did want to do. He bought a building on Cathedral Street, and another on Preston, when a hungry city was offering low-interest real estate loans. He renovated apartments. He rented to some moderate-income people, and some low-income people.

And, over time, a revelation came to Rovecamp: Being a landlord does not work.

It does not work for landlords, and it does not work for tenants, and it also does not work for the city of Baltimore.

"People," says Rovecamp, "don't take care of what they rent. They don't get involved in something that's not theirs. They don't get involved in the property or in the community surrounding the property."

In a city with about 137,000 homeowners and 153,000 rental units, this is unhealthiness computed in vivid mathematics. Include about 40,000 public housing units in the rental figures and the math is grimmer. Then figure about 30 percent of the homeowners as elderly people whose families have grown up and moved on, and it looks even less healthy.

Three years ago, Rovecamp decided to get out of the landlord business. He had 44 apartment units, but rather than simply sell his buildings, he began looking for individual loans so tenants could buy units from him.

Some of it was frustration taking action -- this sense that landlord-tenant battles are endless -- and some of it was this crazy notion that it might help not just the tenants but the city itself if renters were turned into owners.

"The more I got into it," says Rovecamp, "the more it became a kind of quest."

He went to government agencies and got help structuring loans for poor people. He went to behavioral experts to talk about the psychology of empowerment and about breaking old, self-destructive habits. He went to politicians for help in drafting legislation that would aid not only the poor but also moderate-income people locked out of home ownership by tough economic times.

The great experiment has begun. Since November, Rovecamp has sold 20 of his 44 units, focusing on low-income people and setting up certain stipulations. Among them: The new owners have to be off all public assistance -- food stamps, day care, whatever -- in three to five years.

"This isn't just about real estate," Rovecamp says. "It's about empowerment. It's about changing people's lives. Listen, 90 percent of what we do is controlled by what happened early in our lives. And a lot of people learn unacceptable stuff in their childhoods, and they need help making that shift."

Among the early returns: In a Calvert Street building Rovecamp owns, there are four units of single women with children who Rovecamp saysare doing "very well" not only making mortgage payments but also getting along with each other.

On Cathedral Street, he says, are eight families headed by single mothers. All make less than $10,000 a year. Rovecamp says he spent about 18 months virtually hand-picking the people to guarantee a cross-section of backgrounds.

"There's been some turmoil," he admits. "We gave ownership up front, and that may have been a mistake. We removed the carrot. People fall back into old behavior patterns. For example, there's one unit where other families have moved in.

"Also, we're learning that there are a lot of poor women who are willing to do something with their lives, but they have men who aren't. You have people who rob you of energy, that's a real problem."

At a second Cathedral Street building are some special cases, including three people with emotional problems and a retarded person.

"Some people think it's crazy," Rovecamp says. "A state rental officer told me, 'If my boss saw this, he'd fire me.' But these were longtime renters, and I felt that if I was going to begin selling these units, I had a choice: Evict them, or sell to them. And I didn't think it was right to evict."

As part of the management company Rovecamp created, he has a community person with a doctorate work with the new home owners, talking about getting along with each other.

"There's tremendous talent in these poor neighborhoods," Rovecamp says. "But their addictions, the stuff they learn as kids, there's a pattern here that has to be broken. Support systems have to be put into place.

"For instance, we've got plans for bringing in elderly people -- talk about an abandoned group! -- to be with the infants of these single mothers. It's a day-care operation that the tenants could own themselves, and it's also a mixing of two societies. I'm telling you, that kind of love is a positive energy."

It's nice to hear a real estate person using the language of a social worker. There's money in this, but also a sense of mission. Next up for Rovecamp: Help for moderate-income families. In today's economy, their dreams of being homeowners are becoming as distant as poor people's.

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