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Saving Sandtown-Winchester: decade-long, multimillion-dollar investment questioned

Despite investment of $130 million, Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood struggles to overcome entrenched issues.

When local leaders announced an "extraordinary partnership" to revitalize Baltimore's depressed Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in 1989, they said the construction and rehabilitation of hundreds of houses would serve as the foundation for a community-wide transformation unlike any before.

The decade-long project brought together developers, religious and community leaders, nonprofits and elected officials. In the early years, community planning visionary James Rouse saw its potential as a national model for urban renewal.

"If we can demonstrate that these conditions are intolerable, correctable and affordable, then we can change this country," he said. "Sandtown is our beginning."

From 1989 to 1999, at least $130 million in public and private money was spent to build or renovate about 1,000 houses. Millions more went to develop specialized curriculum for Sandtown schools, to ensure that babies were born healthy and to provide job training for residents.

But those who have examined the revitalization effort say it's impossible to measure the impact because there was little accounting at the time and less follow-up afterward.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at the Johns Hopkins University, has studied the investment — and come up with more questions than answers.

"I can't even say whether I think it was well-spent," she said. "I think it was well-intentioned."

Cautionary tale

The West Baltimore neighborhood — dragged into the national spotlight by the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, and the protests and riots that followed — has become a model of a different kind than Rouse imagined: a cautionary tale that underscores the deep-rooted challenges confronting urban America.

As officials from President Barack Obama on down call for significant, sustained attention to the unemployment, poverty and blight that continue to plague Sandtown-Winchester and communities like it, some are revisiting the once-heralded revitalization effort and asking why it wasn't enough.

Sandtown-Winchester is home to about 8,500 people — down from nearly 11,000 in 1990 — who account for some of the city's grimmest statistics. The 72-block neighborhood is part of a section of West Baltimore in which about half the children live below the poverty line, nearly a quarter of adults are out of work, and the homicide rate is more than double the citywide average.

Some indicators show marked improvement over the last 20 years. More people have high school and college degrees, fewer live in poverty and there's been a significant rise in homeownership. But surrounding neighborhoods also show gains, and by some measures have outperformed Sandtown.

Even the most extensive research publicly available on the project — a 52-page report by researchers from the University of Chicago and a New York-based community development group in 2001 — notes that it "had no systematic process to inform decision making, revisit assumptions,incorporate new information or re-examine its approach."

That was in part, the researchers say, because the "need to raise funds and market the transformation concept also made it hard to discuss issues candidly."

A key obstacle to progress, former Mayor Kurt Schmoke says, was that some of the problems afflicting Sandtown-Winchester never disappeared.

"It was a real challenge, because you still had high levels of poverty in an area that had a significant infiltration of street-level drug dealers," Schmoke said. "In dealing with issues like that, you have no final victories, and you have to have people coming behind you to build on your work."

Midway through the effort, federal auditors found that millions of taxpayer dollars meant to fix up homes in struggling neighborhoods — including Sandtown — were spent on repairs that were faulty and, in some cases, never completed.

And local prosecutors launched investigations into millions more that were spent on a program to help poor pregnant women in Sandtown and nearby Harlem Park get prenatal care.

DeLuca studied what she called "Baltimore's Daring Experiment in Urban Renewal" for the Abell Foundation in 2013. She scoured newspaper clippings and looked for academic papers in search of an accounting of the money and what outcomes it produced.

"We did the best we could with what we could find." DeLuca said. "Very little was documented in the way of exactly how the money was spent."

DeLuca found records that indicated $100 million had been "spent or earmarked for housing alone." An additional $30 million was spent by the Enterprise Foundation, the affordable-housing developer founded by Rouse.

Her conclusion? The size of the total investment remains unclear. And there isn't enough information to assess its impact.

Trying to trace the money

An investment of $130 million to build or rehabilitate 1,000 houses works out to $130,000 per home. But some who were involved in the project caution against using simple division to understand expenditures. They cite the varying costs of construction over the span of the project and the addition of fees and related costs.

Habitat for Humanity performed renovations on more than 300 houses at a cost of roughly $100,000 each, an official with the nonprofit said last week. An overall calculation of Habitat's work in Sandtown during the project was unavailable.

The Enterprise Foundation and its partners, which raised money from public and private sources, built about 550 homes for $58 million — an average of about $105,000 per home.

Actual costs varied over time, according to the group, now called Enterprise Community Partners.

Gilmor Homes, the nearly 600-unit public housing project, also was renovated. The city spent more than $13 million on updates, The Baltimore Sun reported in 1992.

Last week, the city's housing department couldn't provide an explanation of historical data, but the agency did provide information to show that millions of dollars flowed into the neighborhood from the federal Community Development Block Grant program and other sources.

Aside from housing construction and renovation costs, the funds paid for family relocations, homeownership counseling, title searches and appraisals, trees, bulk trash pickup and improvements to sidewalks.

Contemporary reports cite other efforts — such as a federally funded program to reduce low birth weight in babies and an employment and training program called Jobs-Plus — but their costs were not specified.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development didn't say whether officials believe the money spent in Sandtown was a sound investment. A spokeswoman said the agency would continue to partner with local leaders to address needs in West Baltimore.

"Over the years, HUD has awarded significant amounts of funding in Baltimore to support efforts to transform distressed neighborhoods," Niki Edwards said in a statement. "Whether you're rich or poor, young or old — housing shapes the quality of your life. Good housing and strong communities are a source of hope. …

"In keeping with our mission, we take very seriously our goals to revitalize communities and the need to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars."

In the mid-1990s, HUD found problems in a $25.6 million taxpayer-funded program to repair dilapidated houses in the city, including some in Sandtown.

Auditors found that some repairs — as much as $100,000 on some houses — were faulty. Others were never completed. Not all of the work was subject to competitive bidding, and some contractors overcharged the city.

Rouse and Enterprise were not involved in the Sandtown projects that were audited by HUD.

Federal and city officials didn't provide information last week on the resolution of the audit. The Sun reported in 1996 that the city was found to have violated federal housing regulations by awarding work to a suspended contractor and ignoring formal bidding procedures.

About a dozen people were charged in connection with the federal housing investigation, some of whom were convicted on corruption charges, The Sun reported.

In 1998, the city state's attorney launched civil and criminal investigations into the $3.2 million federally funded program for pregnant women in West Baltimore. Prosecutors discovered millions of dollars in unpaid bills and more than $750,000 in improper expenditures — such as "enough diapers to diaper the state of Maryland," as one official put it at the time.

DeLuca said the lack of a clear accounting of the money or study of the outcomes "makes it frustrating in terms of understanding what we could have done better."

Whatever the total investment, DeLuca said, the neighborhood was unable to overcome two fundamental challenges: high unemployment and a vibrant drug trade.

"There are issues that homes couldn't fix," DeLuca said.

Lack of investment

In their report, University of Chicago researchers Prudence Brown and Ralph Hamilton and Community Development Associates CEO Benjamin Butler credit the project with improvements in city sanitation and safety services, the addition of computer labs in Sandtown schools and the creation of a large indoor market.

But some in the neighborhood say they've seen a significant lack of investment in the years since.

Rebecca Nagle, who helps run the new No Boundaries Coalition, says there are entire blocks in which streetlights don't work, and community members say they're regularly mistreated by police.

A public fountain in the neighborhood sat in disrepair for 20 years until the community came together in 2009 to restore it.

Still, Nagle said, she and others have to "call and call and call" the city to turn it on.

The Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center used to have solid programming for kids, Nagle says, but after oversight was passed back and forth between the city and private partners, it's now mostly unattended.

Two of the schools that received the special curriculum are in dire need of renovation, Nagle says. The third was closed years ago.

Nagle says the unrest that followed Gray's death has added to the struggles.

The CVS that burned in nearby Penn North was one of the last places the community could shop after a Stop Shop Save closed last year.

"Baltimore is a city that is very separate and very unequal," Nagle said. "Providing resources like housing helps, but until we solve that essential problem of there being two separate and unequal Baltimores, we're still going to be here."

Joe Brightman has run Modern Junk & Salvage Co. from an old brick warehouse on Fremont Avenue for 40 years. Every day, he says, two or three people walk up looking for work.

Change is long overdue, he says.

"They need to do something," he said.

Brightman makes money by recycling metal. He was expecting an influx of cans from Camden Yards, but when the unrest led the Orioles to change their schedule — they closed one game to the public, and moved three others to the Tampa Bay Rays' stadium — he missed out.

And people who might otherwise have dropped items off are avoiding the neighborhood.

"You've got people afraid to come down here," he said. "What are we, four or five blocks from ground zero?"

He says he's trying to figure out a way to avoid laying off one of his four workers.

Long-term effort

The neighborhood, home at different times to Thurgood Marshall, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, derives its name from the sand that once trailed from wagons after they filled up at a nearby quarry.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, helped launch the revitalization effort. Seeing the success of a low- and moderate-income housing program in New York, former BUILD president Carol Reckling said, church leaders called on the city and state to make a similar investment in blighted parts of Baltimore.

BUILD congregations donated $100,000 as seed money. Congregations of other denominations and faiths — Catholic, Episcopalian, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Jewish — agreed to provide $2.25 million for no-interest loans.

BUILD testified before Congress, got the attention of Rouse and pushed to get the attention of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

The money invested in Sandtown-Winchester was necessary, Reckling says, but it wasn't enough.

"I've heard it tossed around like it was wasted. I am sorry, it was not wasted. It was not supplemented," Reckling said. "A lot of things that were supposed to happen didn't happen."

Chief among them, she says, were jobs for residents and commercial development for the neighborhood.

Amelia Harris, a longtime community activist, says Sandtown suffers now from many of the ills — including low incomes, high unemployment and struggling schools — that afflict cities throughout the United States. But she's adamant that the money spent in the 1990s made a difference.

She remembers moments when she couldn't stop smiling as she walked through the neighborhood, past the colorful doors and pristine facades of the new or renovated houses.

The upgrades recalled the neighborhood's mid-20th-century heyday, when people could earn a good paycheck working at the nearby Schmidt's bakery, or head over to Pennsylvania Avenue to see Holiday or Calloway perform.

"There have been really significant changes," said Harris, pastor of Newborn Holistic Community of Faith Church and co-founder of its Newborn Holistic Ministries.

"Those houses were vacant," she said. "It made it possible to come up with a dream that changed the dynamic of, 'I'll never be able to own a home' to 'I am a homeowner,' and you can say it proudly.

"I would walk and I would just smile because I could see the changes."

Harris says she's one of many devoted community members who continue the work. Since the major construction effort ended with the 1990s, they have planted gardens, painted murals and launched programs such as one to help women overcome drug addiction and homelessness.

"You have to be committed for the long haul," Harris said. "You can't come in and think you're going to save Sandtown, and then you leave. It is investing in people. It's about building trust and relationships, and then listening."

Schmoke, who served as mayor from 1987 to 1999, said the effort was never envisioned to "solve all of the problems in Sandtown."

Some might argue that too much was put in bricks and mortar rather than social services, he said, but the work had to start somewhere.

"Sandtown needed it all, but we couldn't generate the resources to do it," Schmoke said. "We started with what was important, which was change to the environment. Get some better houses there, clean up, try to stimulate more jobs.

"You couldn't just put $130 million in there and walk away and say, 'Success,'" he said. "The $130 million was simply the down payment on some future investment."

Two men whose lives were touched by the housing development are Charles Griffin, 59, and Kareem Jordan, 44.

Griffin, who is retired, said he bought his house in the 1000 block of Laurens St. — built by Enterprise — because "we could afford it." He and his wife paid about $50,000 for the brick rowhouse in 2006 and moved from Catonsville.

Griffin says the house, decorated with bright yellow walls, an ornate fireplace and gleaming wood floors, provides a comfortable home.

Still, Sandtown could benefit from more revitalization, he said.

Jordan, a lifelong Sandtown resident who lives on North Fremont Avenue, says construction of the new homes helped put him to work. He's a mason, and says he helped build some of the Enterprise houses.

"It made a big difference," Jordan says, adding that his neighborhood is "changing for the better."

Rouse did not live to see the work completed — he died in 1996. Chickie Grayson, president of Enterprise Homes, a division of Enterprise Community Partners, says homeownership is a bedrock of community building.

Did the money Enterprise spent make a difference?

"Without a question," she said. "It gave 542 families the opportunity to own their own home, to have a mortgage they could sustain. … There are houses to show for it, and people are taking care of their homes."

Grayson says few of Enterprise's Sandtown homes have been resold, and only 4 percent were foreclosed during the housing crash.

'Couple hundred years of racism'

Michael Barb, an official with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake who lives in Sandtown, says lifelong residents knew all along that transforming the neighborhood would take at least a generation to realize.

"We still have more work today," Barb said. "The good news is that the work for the last 25 years has been building the foundation for the next season of revitalization."

Barb says focusing on the money invested in the neighborhood is missing the point.

"As if any dollar amount can be identified as being the amount necessary to unravel a couple hundred years of racism and oppression," he said. "Whether people want to talk about that or not, that's where we are today.

"We are dealing with the results of how this country started, decisions made along the way, different laws and policies like redlining and blockbusting, and historic events like Dr. King's assassination."

On a recent day, parishioners from the New Bethlehem Baptist Church on North Carey Street stood over a giant barbecue, grilling hot dogs, hamburgers and turkey burgers in a parking lot.

Taeleya Bailey, a longtime member of the church, drove in from Towson to help. What Sandtown needs more than anything, she said, is "constant attention."

"We don't need it just today; we need it every day," Bailey said. "We don't need burning cars and riots to bring attention to what is a problem 365 days a year."

In the distance, a group of children passed a ball over a fence. One little boy stood outside the yards, unattended, in a dirty white T-shirt and red pants, watching the others play.

Next to his feet were an empty Cheetos bag, torn up paper plates and a discarded cardboard sign with a message neatly written in red: "I need 2$ for food."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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