Habitat for Humanity joins blight battle in Sandtown-Winchester

March 27, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

If there is to be a 1990s war on poverty, it may grow out of battles now being fought on the trash-strewn streets of Sandtown-Winchester in the heart of West Baltimore.

Today, former President Jimmy Carter and developer James W. Rouse, two of the most influential voices in the affordable-housing movement, will march down North Gilmor Street in Sandtown with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others. They will be kicking off Habitat for Humanity's campaign to rehabilitate 100 vacant houses there over the next five years.

Their presence is symbolic of the powerful forces converging on Sandtown in an attempt to break the neighborhood's cycle of despair. It is a broad effort by government, non-profit groups and residents themselves to mount a full-court press on poverty.

"If we can demonstrate that these conditions are intolerable, correctable and affordable, then we can change the country. Sandtown is our beginning," said Mr. Rouse, the developer of Columbia and Harborplace and now chairman of the non-profit Enterprise Foundation.

In cooperation with the city, Enterprise has made Sandtown-Winchester the first of three "neighborhood transformation" projects around the nation. The plan is not only to make Sandtown's crumbling housing stock "fit and affordable," but also to reform the neighborhood's schools, health care, police protection and other services.

More important, the objective is to develop community leaders who can get the job done themselves. The goal is nothing less than a rehabilitation of the human spirit in Sandtown.

The 72 city blocks of Sandtown, home to some 12,000 people, present a catalog of urban ills. Median household income is put at less than $10,000. Nearly half of those looking for work can't find any, the city estimates. More than 600 vacant houses blight the neighborhood. Drug dealers lurk on many corners. Police sirens constantly pierce the air.

"It is an ideal neighborhood for us to be in because [conditions are] so bad," Mr. Rouse said. "We believe that step by step, we can change the institutions and build hope, encouragement, even excitement in this community. . . . But we're simply an enabler. It's the neighborhood and the city that have to do this."

A number of ambitious projects are already under way in Sandtown-Winchester, which is bounded by North Avenue on the north and Lafayette Avenue on the south, Monroe Street on the west and Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues on the east. They include:

* Nehemiah Housing, a $23 million homeownership project spearheaded by Enterprise and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). The developers expect to build 227 townhouses by the end of the year for sale to low-income families who would then have a stake in Sandtown.

* A $13.3 million modernization of 589 public-housing units at Gilmor Homes.

* The Baltimore Project, a $3 million pilot program to try to reduce infant mortality. Caseworkers hired from the community go door to door in an attempt to make sure Sandtown's pregnant women get care.

* The Mount Street Community Support Center, in which an old school has been turned into a site for the city to offer job training, family support and youth recreation.

* An extensive planning effort in which Enterprise, BUILD and the city's Sandtown-Winchester Initiative bring residents and experts together to design how to make schools and other services work. A blueprint is due by fall.

Some 580 housing units have been renovated in Sandtown under various programs over the past decade, but the underlying problems of joblessness, crime, family dissolution and despair remain.

Some people, like Demetrick McDonald, a 29-year-old construction worker on the Nehemiah project, doubt whether a community that's been down so long will ever look up.

"Construction is beautiful, but the neighborhood will never change," he said. "This is just one small step. You go three blocks down here, and you run into all that violence."

Ella Johnson, director of the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, conceded that progress has been painfully slow: "You rehab houses on this block, and houses around the corner become vacant. You have to keep struggling."

Habitat for Humanity, a church-affiliated effort to make decent houses out of vacant properties and sell them to poor people, is playing a small but growing role in that struggle.

Volunteers and homeowners-to-be have rehabbed five vacant houses on North Gilmor Street so far. Each house is later sold for about $200 a month on 20-year, interest-free mortgages, which means that working-poor families can afford them.

Mr. Carter and his wife Rosalynn, Habitat's most famous volunteers, spend a week every year "blitz-building" houses to draw attention to the cause. The annual Jimmy Carter Work Project will be based this June in Washington, with a side trip to Sandtown.

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