A program started with faith

The Sandtown Habitat for Humanity was begun in 1989 by New Song Urban Ministries' founders

150 neighborhood homes remain vacant.

May 30, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

Standing on the steps of his West Baltimore rowhouse, Charles Barden looks left and sees a picturesque block of fresh-faced homes painted in such cheery hues as sky blue, lime green, yellow, fuchsia and pink, all trimmed in white.

When he looks to the right, the scene is a homeowner's worst nightmare. The burgundy rowhouse next door has been vacant since 1996 and looks it. The tattered roof has holes visible through the worn plywood over window panes. At the corner is a boarded-up, forgotten store. Both buildings have a rat problem.

"This is what you get around here," says Barden, who lives on Stricker Street in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. "It's not so bad, though. You take the good with the bad."

In many ways, Barden's block symbolizes the ebb-and-flow success for Sandtown Habitat for Humanity. The program rebuilt Barden's home and the other owner-occupied rowhouses on this street, but it has been unable to gain control of other abandoned properties marring the landscape.

In 1989, the Habitat program was established by the founders of New Song Urban Ministries as a religious repentance.

"You can say it was a faith conviction to relocate to a hurting area and try to help," said Allan M. Tibbels, co-executive director of the Habitat program. Tibbels and his wife, Susan, started the ministry in 1986.

The ministry also grew to include New Song Community Church, New Song Academy grade school, New Song Community Learning Center, a family health center, job assistance program and an arts program.

But the biggest effort by New Song started in 1989, when it decided to target a 15-block radius of Sandtown-Winchester for rehabilitating vacant property into homes for low-income families. At the time, the target area had 350 vacancies. Fifteen years later, about 150 vacancies remain.

"I think we all thought we'd be done by now," Tibbels said, adding that he and his wife initially thought the project would take a decade to complete. "I think we are disappointed we haven't come as far as we wanted by now."

Habitat's target area is bordered to the west by Fulton Avenue, to the east by Stricker and Carey streets, to the north by Westwood Avenue, and to the south by Laurens Street.

Habitat officials estimate that about 130 of the 150 vacant properties in their target area are unclaimed. They say they are close to a deal with the city to acquire those properties, some of which will be taken from deadbeat landlords.

In the past, the city has given or sold vacant properties cheaply to Habitat. A few absent owners have declined to sell their neglected properties, like the abandoned houses next-door to Barden.

LaVerne S. Stokes, co-executive director of the Habitat program, who has lived in Sandtown-Winchester her entire life, thinks Tibbels is understating the program's success.

"Along with the pain, the suffering, the crime, the drugs, there is a lot of joy here," said Stokes, who lives in a Habitat home on Carey Street. "In the area of housing, at a minimum, we are providing people a decent place to lay their head at night. As a whole, New Song is improving quality of life here."

In 1986, following their religious convictions, the Tibbelses drove around Baltimore looking for a physically and economically depressed area where they hoped to help. They moved from Columbia and became the only white family in all-black Sandtown.

Before the 1980s, Sandtown, as the locals call it, was a thriving community of blacks, both poor and middle class. But by the early 1990s, the neighborhood -- a 72-block area with about 11,000 people and a median income of $12,000 a year -- had deteriorated into a bastion of poverty, vacant homes, drug activity and hopelessness.

One of the first people the Tibbelses met when they moved in was Stokes, who made it clear that no one in Sandtown wanted a charitable effort.

"Low-income communities don't need people coming in telling them what to do," Stokes recalled telling the Tibbelses. "We already know what we need; we just needed the resources to get there."

And the Tibbelses had resources, forming a partnership with the Enterprise Foundation developers and city officials. The city would provide vacancies to Habitat, which, with the financial backing of Enterprise, would rehabilitate the properties into homes for low-income families.

Although Tibbels wishes there were greater progress on the housing front, the Habitat program has rebuilt or newly constructed whole blocks on Stricker, Carey and Leslie streets, as well as homes on Baker and Gilmore streets, and Fulton Avenue.

Two rebuilt rowhouses on Baker have sold for $48,000 and $50,000. A decade ago, the largest Habitat homes were going for about half that. The owners are receiving 20-year, low-interest loans with monthly mortgage payments of about $400 or less.

"There is some success," he said. "The median income is up and property values are going up. So, some people in Sandtown actually have equity in their homes."

And there are other homes being built in Sandtown not affiliated with Habitat, another healthy sign for an area struggling to reclaim its prosperous state.

"We still have our problems," said Barden, who works as a receptionist for Habitat. "But we're making progress. This is home."

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