Housing: 25 Years of Problems and Progress

September 05, 1993|By VINCENT P. QUAYLE

I came to Baltimore 25 years ago and started the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center to help first-time homebuyers purchase modest homes in Baltimore's racially changing neighborhoods.

Baltimore's neighborhoods in 1968 were under siege. The 1960s in Baltimore witnessed the scourge of "blockbusting" at its worst. The symbol was the ever-present "for sale" sign. Elderly widows were preyed upon by unscrupulous scoundrels known as "bird-dogs" who brought potential buyers to houses which were not even for sale.

In Chicago, where I had previously worked, black teen-agers were paid just to walk up and down a street or knock a white kid off his bike.

In Baltimore, fraud abounded. Investors met at corner bars and drug stores to apportion the next day's auctions so they would not bid up prices against each other.

My first years were spent in the Alameda or Montebello section southeast of Memorial Stadium, a neighborhood that changed in six years from 90 percent white to 90 percent black. Houses changed hands like a run on Campbell soup before a snowstorm.

Racial integration and harmony never had a chance. White people fled in terror and today pass on stories to their children and grandchildren that help explain their fear of integration. Black people were blamed instead of the scoundrels who exploited white people's fears and black people's aspirations for a better living. Who can measure the damage to a black family or person's psyche at witnessing the flight of a whole block of neighbors just because he or she moved in?

Doom and gloom pervaded Baltimore's neighborhoods in 1968. Homeownership suffered a serious decline in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and lower Waverly, and a devasting erosion in large parts of East, West and Northwest Baltimore.

Investors set their sights on greener pastures -- Northwood, Govans, upper Waverly, Edmondson Village, Belair-Edison -- and would have succeeded but for an extraordinary sequence of events engineered by a handful of Baltimore bankers.

Perceiving the threat to these neighborhoods and indeed the city itself, leaders from five prominent banks and savings-and-loans met behind closed doors and devised a strategy for preserving homeownership in Baltimore's older neighborhoods.

Bill Beasman of the Bank of Baltimore, Gene Williams and Bob Hecht of Baltimore Federal S&L, Sam Borden and Joe Mossmiller of Loyola Federal, Howard Scaggs and Bruce Tucker of American National Building and Loan, and Bob Irving and Betty Davis of Equitable Trust committed their institutions to preserving homeownership in the city. They developed the ideal mortgage instrument for the time, and together with the state of Maryland created the Maryland Housing Fund to insure the mortgages and protect the banks and their depositors.

The fund allowed qualified buyers to purchase with as little as $600 cash, something unheard of before in the industry. Between 1973 and 1993 the fund insured more than 15,000 single-family mortgages to the tune of $500 million.

This bold and brilliant action is the primary reason why so many of Baltimore's neighborhoods are today thriving. I am most familiar with Northeast Baltimore, but other sectors have similar success stories. Upper Waverly, Govans, Northwood, Ednor Gardens, Lakeside, Morgan Park and Belair-Edison are sound, healthy communities today thanks in great measure to the foresight of a small group of Baltimore bankers in 1972.

Even more promising, neighborhoods that many experts wrote off in 1968 have stabilized and staged a comeback again thanks to the housing fund and to the creation of tenant-conversion programs developed and supported by Baltimore's housing department. Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello and lower Waverly are fundamentally sound communities that can continue improve and thrive with a relatively small amount of assistance.

All of which brings us to the autumn of 1993. If not doom and gloom, lesser types of fear and apprehension exist in parts of Baltimore. An abundance of "for sale" signs, probably a result of the recession more than anything else, has citizens on edge. Drugs, crime and a failing confidence in public education have people who love the city and its neighborhoods wondering what the future will bring.

The times call for another extraordinary sequence of events, and the banking leadership seems once again poised to play the role of catalyst. In 1989 Congress put teeth into the Community Reinvestment Act which asked America's banks to take a fresh look at the nation's older communities. Bank CEOs and senior officers walked the neighborhoods, spoke with the residents and actually grew comfortable with the environment.

The president of one of our largest banks told me recently after a neighborhood tour, "You know, all my life as a banker I never thought of myself as a social worker but, now that government has failed, I have to become one. There is no one else to solve these problems."

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