Sandtown gleam typifies successful fight of blight

September 27, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

The husk of the old Schmidt's bakery used to lie in the heart

of West Baltimore, belly-up like a rotting carcass. The building was surrounded by abandoned, boarded-up row homes, overgrown vacant lots and trash in the streets. Winos and drug addicts leaned against its weathered walls. Pigeons nested inside.

Yesterday, I drove over to the Sandtown-Winchester community, where the Schmidt's bakery used to be. Now, there are blocks of single-family row homes with neat little back yards. The streets are clean. A sign warns intruders that the community is protected by a "neighborhood crime watch."

The city's development of Sandtown-Winchester offers a spectacular example of a successful effort to replace a blighted urban area with affordable housing and a stable, working-class community. It is the type of housing success the mayor would like us all to concentrate on -- as opposed to recent events.

Last week, for instance, a federal audit of a no-bid emergency repair program run by the city's Housing Authority accused the agency of mismanagement and waste. The auditors accused the city of knowingly allowing families to be exposed to dangerous levels of lead paint, of paying millions of dollars for work that was never done, and of giving lucrative contracts to firms operated by relatives of authority managers.

And earlier, some residents and politicians in Baltimore County raised fierce opposition to a federal pilot program that was to help inner city families find homes in better neighborhoods, mostly in the suburbs. Critics of the Moving To Opportunity (MTO) program accused the city of conspiring with the federal government to dump its problems into the county. The two cases illustrate to me why so many of our efforts to help the poor fail: Ignorance and bigotry in the suburbs. Incompetence in the city.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke disagrees. On Sunday he and I talked about the two crises in housing.

"First of all, you've got to put the HUD audit in context," he said. "The one thing that got lost in the controversy was the fact that this was a $25 million program involving the renovation or repair of over 1,000 units. But the auditors found problems with 50 units out of that 1,000, and with the allocation of $700,000 out of that $25 million. So you're talking about a small percentage.

"And even that percentage, we disagree with. We expect most of the allegations listed in the report to be overturned on appeal by next spring."

Mr. Schmoke acknowledged that race may have played a role in the MTO controversy: "People who argue otherwise are being disingenuous. I know that if I had a public housing high-rise full of Eastern European immigrants and I was planning to scatter them throughout the metro area, I would not have had this kind of controversy."

But he says that both efforts will continue: "I'm not going to apologize for either one of those programs because I believe they are moving in the right direction. We have to break up these concentrations of poverty. It is the only thing that makes sense. And wherever it has been tried [such as in a demonstration project in Chicago] it has been very successful."

Mayor Schmoke made housing a priority when he first ran for mayor in 1987. For instance, he promised to bring 1,000 new homeowners to the city each year. He pledged his support for the church-government partnership that led to the Nehemiah housing projects in West Baltimore and Cherry Hill. He has kept both vows. Moreover, the city's home ownership grew from 44 percent in 1980 to close to 50 percent last year.

Now the mayor says he will continue his efforts to break up concentrations of poor people by demolishing substandard housing, promoting programs that help low- to middle- income families own homes, and by an amended version of MTO.

"I'm hoping that by moving people slowly, over time, and not concentrating the people we are moving in one area, it will demonstrate that folks coming from the city will be good neighbors and not be a problem," he says.

And when he runs for re-election next year, Mr. Schmoke plans to point to thriving communities such as Sandtown-Winchester. Where an ugly, dead bakery used to be.

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