Cuts in U.S. aid fuel housing plight, Baltimore poor find

October 11, 1991|By James Bock

Cordine Irby got on a waiting list for subsidized housing in 1979, when Jimmy Carter was president. This week, unable to find a low-cost apartment, having worn out her welcome with relatives and still on the waiting list, she moved into a homeless shelter with her 4-year-old daughter.

Charles I. Brown has passed by the abandoned hulk of the American Brewery on North Gay Street nearly every day for 13 years. He considers it Eyesore No. 1 in an East Baltimore neighborhood full of eyesores, but the money isn't yet in hand to fix it up.

Robert Green has taken his quest for housing literally into his own hands. As a member of a "sweat equity" homesteading group, he volunteers at least 30 hours a month rebuilding vacant city houses. By Christmas, he'll move into a rehabbed home of his own.

As Baltimoreans rally in Washington tomorrow in a Save Our Cities march to protest a decade of federal aid cuts, these city residents' stories exemplify how individuals and communities alike have coped with the dramatically reduced federal role in providing low-income housing and spurring neighborhood renewal in Baltimore.

"The main thing is that new construction of public and subsidized housing for families has virtually ground to a halt," said Barbara Samuels, a housing attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau Inc. "That is housing that would have been available for families that now are homeless or living in houses with lead paint and in other substandard housing."

There isn't nearly enough low-cost housing in the Baltimore area, according to a June study by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. There were nearly 40,000 more poor households than low-cost rental units in 1987, the most recent data available, the study said. That was almost four times the gap in 1979, before the federal cutbacks began.

Almost 31,000 Baltimore households are on waiting lists for public or subsidized housing, said Bill Toohey, city housing spokesman. While nearly 3,000 such housing units were developed in 1978, only about 400 were built or rehabilitated a decade later, and none of the new housing was for families, he said.

Nearly two-thirds of poor renter households in the Baltimore area spent at least half their income on housing, well above the 30 percent considered affordable by the federal government, the study said.

Countless other families -- sometimes called the "hidden homeless" -- live with relatives or friends.

"The families you see on the streets and in shelters are really the tip of the iceberg," said Ruth Crystal, executive director of the Maryland Low Income Housing Coalition.

Blight in Broadway East

Charles Brown, president of the Broadway East Community Association, has tried to help provide low-cost housing and clean up his East Baltimore neighborhood at the same time. But the results have been frustrating so far.

Vacant houses are a plague in the Broadway East area, which revolves around Collington Square and is bisected by Gay Street. Their number nearly doubled from 1981 to 1987, a city planning study showed. The community association decided to tackle the problem head-on by renovating and selling vacant houses at cost, as low as $32,000 for a two-bedroom row house.

But, Mr. Brown said, prospective buyers take one look at the blight and drug-dealing in the area and back away. Unless the neighborhood can be turned around, single-shot rehab projects are risky ventures.

Renewing the neighborhood includes fixing up its centerpiece, the 1887 American Brewery in the 1600 block of North Gay Street. Plans have been in place since 1988 to revitalize the area, but only now is the project taking its first steps. Results are still years away.

A decade ago, federal block grants might have been earmarked to restore the brewery and attempt a Gay Street revival. Now, Mr. Toohey of the housing department says, "The empty American Brewery is a monument to federal withdrawal."

Sweat equity

Just a half-dozen blocks from the abandoned brewery, Robert Green took a hands-on approach to housing this week. Mr. Green, who works at an ice cream shop, was packing fiberglass insulation into the walls of a row house under rehabilitation.

Mr. Green has worked for nearly two years with the People's Homesteading Group, a self-help response to federal cutbacks. Homesteaders put in at least 30 hours of volunteer construction work a month rehabilitating vacant houses. Eventually, they qualify to buy a house themselves at mortgage payments of less than $200 a month.

"This should be the movement of the '90s. This is the way to revitalize cities. We have to do it ourselves, just bite the bullet, get out there and do it," said Mr. Green, who has shared a !B Woodlawn apartment with a brother and a nephew and now lives with his parents. In December, he plans to move into a house in the 2800 block of West North Avenue. Several other homesteaders will be his neighbors.

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