Tumultuous decades for a housing-aid activist

Vincent Quayle knows the corrosive effect of foreclosures well, sitting as he does at the helm of a nonprofit group that helps homeowners in trouble.

But he says the current foreclosure crisis is nothing compared to the damage wrought by the "blockbusting" that reshaped Baltimore and its suburbs in the 1950s and '60s.

As African-American families began moving into historically white city neighborhoods, real estate investors capitalized on racial fears to persuade white homeowners to sell cheap, then rented or resold the properties for big profits to African-Americans.

Quayle, who was a Jesuit seminarian new to Baltimore, was so upset by the abuse of white sellers and African-American buyers that in 1968 he formed a group to picket the blockbusters.

Now, 43 years later, Quayle's St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center is a major player in regional homeownership and revitalization efforts. The nonprofit's staff of 40 counsels new buyers, helps struggling borrowers negotiate with their lenders, rehabs crumbling foreclosures, manages affordable rentals, and connects homeowners in need of income with people looking to rent a room.

The 71-year-old Quayle, who goes by Vinnie, thinks it's at last time to retire. He announced recently that this would be his final year as St. Ambrose's executive director. Quayle, who left the Jesuit order in 1977, lives in Baltimore's Beverly Hills neighborhood with his wife, Patricia. They have three sons.

He talked recently with The Baltimore Sun about fair-lending battles, gentrification and the roller-coaster housing market.

What was your founding goal for the organization?

I started St. Ambrose so that African-American families could buy houses the same way that white people buy houses. That was not true back in the '60s. … Maryland's banks and savings and loans were not serving — at least I thought and others thought — the black community well. And what happened, other systems grew up for black families to buy houses, and some of them were horrible. That was the era of blockbusting, where neighborhoods changed racially very quickly.

We started picketing the blockbusters back in '68. … It went from there to the lending community in '72.

You picketed lenders, too?

There were five big mortgage lenders in Baltimore — locally based mortgage lenders. … They were not lending to black families. So we picketed them for a few weeks in the summer of '72, and that led to a change.

The five got together, pooled their resources, went to the governor and got the governor to set up a unique insurance program like the FHA, but it's called the Maryland Housing Fund. … That fund insured 35,000 loans between '74, when it opened, and the mid-'90s, when it closed — at least, went on hold.

It really, I believe, should be brought back today to deal with the current crisis of people not having enough down payment for their houses.

Many call the last few years the roughest stretch for the country's housing market since the Depression. But in your view, the '60s were much worse for Baltimore?

Absolutely. It was lawless out there. … [On a single street] you'd see 44 "For Sale" signs.

[Investors] used to sell a house to a black family and flier the block saying, "We just sold such-and-such a house, now we want to buy yours." … They used to go house to house, knocking on doors, telling the white folks, "You'd better get out of here, you know what's coming." It was unbelievable. … They were buying for below [market value] and selling it for above.

When did you get involved with foreclosure-prevention counseling?

That was really in '74, '75. The banks who were lending then realized we weren't the bad guys, and they came in on an issue they were having and we didn't even know about — they were having trouble with some foreclosures. They couldn't find the people because the people had their telephone lines cut. They said, "St. Ambrose, could you help us?" We said, "Sure, we'll go visit the families." So we set up a mediation system where we could get to the families and get them talking to the lenders again and see if we could resolve the problem.

How many struggling homeowners have St. Ambrose counselors worked with?

We used to see maybe 500 families a year. … Once this foreclosure crisis hit, we were seeing over 2,000 families a year. And I think last year we saw something like 1,200 families — it's slowing down somewhat — but we're not the only group in town now. There are a number of other groups that are doing foreclosure counseling. So it's big, it's big. … The lenders have been very slow to deal with this crisis.

How much luck have you had negotiating foreclosure alternatives?

We took 1,000 families that we saw in 2007 and we tracked them over three years, and we found that something like 60 percent of them are still in their houses.

How many rental units does St. Ambrose have?

We have 300. … There was a reason we got into that back in the '80s; it was during the gentrification movement. We did it because we were afraid poor tenants were going to be dislocated.

Did that happen to the extent you worried about?

In Baltimore, there were about 13 neighborhoods that all of a sudden became very desirable. … [Gentrification in] some neighborhoods continued … but the other neighborhoods, it almost stopped immediately.

Was that good or bad?

Who isn't in favor of investment? That's what the gentrification movement did — it brought in a lot of money, and it was a lot of private money.

What changes do you see in the city's housing market these days?

[Before the mid-2000s housing boom], Baltimore was an affordable city. You could buy a good three-bedroom house, even a detached three-bedroom up here in Northeast Baltimore — in Hamilton and Lauraville and Govans — for $60,000 $70,000 $90,000. And then all of that changed. It changed to the extent, within a few years, that really, it was really difficult to find a good house in a fairly decent neighborhood in Baltimore and even parts of Baltimore County for under $200,000.

And yet now it's changing back. Today Baltimore again is affordable. You can buy a decent house for $150,000 again today in lots of neighborhoods. … The people who bought during the crazy period who are now what they call "underwater" on their houses, they're suffering, but for people coming along, thinking of getting into the housing market now, there are wonderful values.

We're also going to see a growing rental community, I think. But that doesn't have to be bad. I think we don't have the rapid racial change, with all the fear tactics, that we had in the '60s. We have a much more modest, natural growth in neighborhoods that's healthier, that gives people time to get to know each other.



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