`At the tipping point'

Community: A preponderance of FHA-controlled homes threatens to push a city neighborhood over the edge, a critic argues.

March 29, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Walking inside a beaten-up, vacant rowhouse that sits on a well-kept Northeast Baltimore street, Vincent P. Quayle said he is scared for a whole community. "This house should be a warning sign," he said, pointing to a 6-inch-long stone that has smashed through a window and sits on the living room floor.

"If we don't take control of the neighborhood now, things are going to get a whole lot worse," he said.

On Monday Quayle, director of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, testified in Baltimore before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on housing problems. He said the federal government was fueling some of the worst community woes in the city.

Quayle told a panel that included Democratic Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes that the Federal Housing Administration was falling short of its responsibility to protect neighborhoods.

Too many FHA-controlled homes, he said, were falling into the hands of real estate investors who ended up "flipping" the properties, selling them at inflated prices, usually to people who could not afford them.

He pointed to the Little Flower community, home to the 74-year-old Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic Church, as his prime example.

Quayle said the 20-square-block neighborhood, just north of the Clifton Park golf course and once one of the most stable communities in the city, is in danger of slipping into disrepair.

"It's at the tipping point," said Quayle, noting the neighborhood has weathered the white flight that has turned it into a predominantly African-American enclave during the past 15 years.

He cited statistics showing that about 25 percent of FHA mortgages -- 46 of 193 -- issued since 1996 in the neighborhood ended in foreclosure filings. Some foreclosed homes, he told the senators, had been boarded up, a sight he said the community had never seen.

Quayle was deeply critical of the FHA, arguing that it was making matters worse in many Baltimore neighborhoods by handing oversight responsibility to private lenders, clearing the way for people who were not responsible enough to own homes.

Once those homes went into foreclosure, he said, the FHA made the problem worse by letting many of the properties lie vacant for years without any repairs. Potential working-class homebuyers would not buy properties in the condition they were kept in by the FHA, argued Quayle, who said many properties fall into the hands of investors who sell them to poor families for marked-up prices.

Reached for comment yesterday, FHA spokesman Lee Jones questioned the statistics, saying the foreclosure rate in Baltimore was just under 2 percent. He said Congress forced the FHA to give responsibility to private lenders.

Little Flower is part of the larger Belair-Edison community, which has roughly 15,000 residents and a community association with a long history of improving the area. Belair-Edison Healthy Neighborhoods, which works to boost housing and development in the area, has worked with St. Ambrose during the past 13 years to buy and upgrade about 40 homes in Little Flower, then sell them to qualified buyers.

Visible scars

The neighborhood has few visible scars. It is a community consisting mostly of well-maintained, two-story rowhouses, small front-yard gardens and sloping views, some that angle into the Herring Run nature reserve where foxes are sometimes spotted.

Cars slowly move down the quiet streets, courteously letting pedestrians cross.

Mel Freeman, a neighborhood development worker with Healthy Neighborhoods, noted the new bus shelters, landscaping and social programs that his group was responsible for and said there is reason to be positive about the area.

"What we need is more people on each block who really care," he said.

Most residents agree with Freeman, but not everyone wants to stay in the neighborhood.

"We've given up on the place," said one woman, who has lived with her husband in a rowhouse in the 3300 block of Parklawn Ave. since 1976. The couple, who have lived next to a vacant FHA home for two years and did not want to be identified, have decided to move to Harford County. They say they have bitterly complained to the city and FHA about the shape of the home next door and have gotten little response. At times, they say, the grass on the lawn has been 2 feet high.

Alternative outlook

Ruby Givens offers a different view.

"It's quiet, people keep to themselves, and, for the most part, I'm happy with the neighborhood," said Givens, 28, a nurse who bought her first home, in the 3400 block of Cardenas Ave., from the FHA a year ago.

Givens complained, though, that she had to take out a $12,000 loan to do major repairs on her home, including new piping, a kitchen renovation, roof fixes and electrical work. "I like the neighborhood, but if I had known what I was going to have to go through with this house, I'm not sure I would have gotten into the deal."

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