Substandard housing: The concept sounds abstract until you wake up one night, as Sonia Moore did, and find your 18-month-old daughter sharing her crib with a rat.
It happened in the first place Sonia Moore could call her own, a shabby $285-a-month rowhouse rental on Baker Street in West Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood.
"I moved out, left everything there and started all over," says Ms. Moore, who bounced from place to place for years before winding up back in Sandtown at the Gilmor Homes public housing project. "When a rat walks up my stairs and into my child's crib, it's time to go."
Now, for Sonia Moore and nine other single mothers in Sandtown, it is time to stay.
This week the 10 women will take a giant step toward becoming homeowners, as part of a Sandtown Habitat for Humanity project to rehab 100 vacant neighborhood houses over the next five years.
More than 300 volunteers, including former President Jimmy Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and the 10 families themselves, will renovate 10 dilapidated rowhouses during this week's "blitz-building."
Houses like the one earmarked for Sonia Moore and her three daughters, a former storefront in the 1500 block of N. Gilmor St., will begin the week as little more than empty shells. By week's end, some will be ready to house families.
The Sandtown Habitat project is unfolding as a larger "neighborhood transformation" plan spearheaded by the Enterprise Foundation and the city's attempts to upgrade Sandtown's housing stock and reform its schools, health care, police protection and other services.
With their incomes averaging about $10,000 a year, the 10 Habitat families don't qualify for government housing programs, says the Rev. Mark R. Gornik, pastor of New Song Community Church, president of the Sandtown Habitat board and a neighborhood resident.
But, because of Habitat's "biblical economics" -- no profit, interest-free loans, volunteer labor, donated materials and at least 250 hours of "sweat equity" work by each homeowner-to-be -- the average house costs only $30,000. Residents such as Sonia Moore will pay just $200 or so a month to own a home, as do five Habitat homeowners already established in Sandtown.
All of which is almost too much to bear for Ms. Moore, 30, a $6-an-hour program assistant at New Song's learning center for children.
"I feel like I'm on that narrow little golden road, and if I don't look back, I can't fall off," Ms. Moore says. "I'm scared that if I turn around, my whole life will go back down. I'm going to keep looking ahead. I've come too far to turn around."
Ms. Moore put in her application with Sandtown Habitat more than a year ago. About 200 families have applied to the affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, a Georgia-based ecumenical Christian ministry, for a chance to help build their own homes.
Finally, word came that Ms. Moore was one of the lucky 10. "I've been joyful ever since. I can't keep that smile off my face," she says.
Ms. Moore has already worked side by side with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., who stopped by recently to help with initial work to stabilize the Gilmor Street house.
Tomorrow, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are to lend a further hand. It is part of the annual Jimmy Carter Work Project, in which the Carters work as carpenters to publicize Habitat's mission. This year they will spend the bulk of the week building houses in Washington, with a one-day trip to Sandtown.
Mr. Gornik says Sandtown Habitat's work over the next five years will be generally low-profile.
"We want to reweave the community fabric where it is frayed," he says. "The real substance is what's going to happen over years -- families in homeownership, kids going off to college. We don't think programs change communities. It's people to people, family to family. Relationships are bridges to change."
That means helping people such as Linda Greene and Patricia Holmes, two other Habitat homeowners-to-be, build a stable presence in Sandtown.
"For some people this is the only break they've gotten in their entire lives," Mr. Gornik says.
Linda Greene, 35, needed a break. A cheerful, round-faced woman who grew up in rural Virginia, she supports four children as a $5.50-an-hour truck driver for a paint supply company. She ** rents a Sandtown rowhouse for $339 a month, and counts on food stamps and medical assistance to get by.
"I've struggled from Day One up to now," she says. "I've always been determined. If you want something, you have to work for it. Nothing's handed to you on a silver platter unless you're the queen of England."
Before Habitat, Ms. Greene says, she used to think about owning a home and figured "I'd probably be 50 or older or maybe never -- with the price of houses, credit checks, banks, settlement costs and everything."
Now, when she and her son Shawn, 15, volunteer with Habitat on Saturdays, "you're working on your own house. You actually see it. It's beyond words."
"I think about planting a flower garden and putting some tomatoes and collard greens out back," she says. "My daughter and son are already fighting over the bedrooms."
Ms. Greene also thinks about making a life in Sandtown, where nearly half the 11,000 residents live in poverty, according to the 1990 census. Median household income is only $11,400, or $220 a week -- one of the lowest in the city.
Vacant houses and trash-strewn lots blight the neighborhood, and the drug trade bleeds it. Teen-age pregnancy is rife. Single women head three of five families. Most adults haven't finished high school. Nearly one-third of teen-agers 16 and older have quit school.
Linda Greene concedes that raising a family in Sandtown is "very tough." When her children visit friends, she makes them telephone home when they get there and again before they leave.
She says her children don't want other youngsters to call them "nerds" for doing well in school. "I told them, 'Be the best nerd you can be.' "
"I'm constantly prayerful all the time," she says. "When my children go out in the morning, I ask God to put angels around them and keep them safe."
Patricia Holmes is also prayerful, as most any unemployed 41-year-old single mother of five teen-agers might be. She jokingly calls her four daughters and one son, ages 13 to 18, "the Five Stair Steps" because they were born in such rapid succession.
Like the "Stair Steps," they sing, too. The Holmes' gospel harmonies fill the storefront Newborn Apostolic Faith Church of the Trinity on North Appleton Street, a ministry that started in Patricia Holmes' Sandtown living room. The Holmes family will sing at a Habitat celebration tomorrow night at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
After her husband left her, Ms. Holmes moved her family into a half-dozen places in 15 months, even going to North Carolina to get a fresh start. The prospect of a Habitat house brought them back to Sandtown.
"In this area, people seemed hopeless. They did whatever ungodly thing came to their minds," Ms. Holmes says. "I had no hope for this area being renovated. Then New Song and Habitat materialized, and I couldn't believe it."
The family is headed to a three-story, four-bedroom house -- "the Bill Cosby look" -- that Ms. Holmes had envisioned when she was first married.
With several children old enough to work part-time, Ms. Holmes says, they probably could have pooled their resources and lived elsewhere. But she has chosen to stay in Sandtown.
"I feel the 20 years I stayed at home have been worth it. I have instilled values that my children will put to the test right here. I don't feel it's my responsibility to run. I can probably help somebody," Ms. Holmes says.
"Somebody's got to live in this area. Everybody down here is not bad. Some people are just trapped. I know because I've been one of them," she says. "One person, one house, one family can make a difference."