Fast-track in Sandtown-Winchester

March 05, 1994

Little by little, the Sandtown-Winchester dream is becoming a reality.

Loan packages totaling $8.8 million announced by NationsBank accelerate the momentum. This enables the city to use a fast-track approach for acquiring some 600 vacant houses and rehabilitating them quickly.

The plan, according to Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, is to demolish about 150 of the small alley houses in the worst condition. Some 150 other houses will be turned into rental units and 300-350 rowhouses will be offered for sale to low- and medium-income homeowners.

The loans are a godsend to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. A year ago, he rashly pledged that every boarded-up house in a 72-square-block area in Sandtown-Winchester would be renovated within a year. In another few days that deadline will pass -- but at least now there will be resources to complete the task.

Since Mr. Schmoke came to office in 1987, Sandtown-Winchester has become his administration's showpiece development. More than 200 new houses have been built in the West Baltimore neighborhoods under a Nehemiah program, which brought together the federal, state and city governments with local religious organizations.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, sponsored by local and out-of-town churches and businesses, are turning empty shells into housing. Twenty houses are already occupied; 20 others are under way and a total of 100 should be finished by the end of next year.

Money is a problem in all these rejuvenation efforts. To accelerate Habitat for Humanity building, its local administrator, New Song Community Church, even mortgaged its sanctuary to create a revolving loan fund.

Among Sandtown's major problems is the lack of jobs. The area's chief employers have moved out of the neighborhood, as have many of the more successful families. As a result, poverty defines the area, which the city proposes for a federal empowerment zone.

Mr. Henson says that as the vacant-housing eradication project begins, he wants to divide the properties into small packages and give the rehabilitation contracts to small contractors. That way, he reasons, neighborhood residents stand a better chance to find work on construction sites.

Thanks to NationsBank, Sandtown's housing components are closer to completion. The city should now concentrate on job creation in an area that has become Baltimore's urban laboratory.

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