Building Communities, Not Houses

South Central is a neighborhood once held hopeless. It had the city's highest violent crime rate and was home to poor minorities, many of whom lived in decrepit public housing projects and on the streets.

But this South Central is not the Los Angeles community shredded by riots last year following the Rodney King verdict. It is located in Elkhart, Ind., a city of 45,000 located 15 miles from South Bend.


Last month, Elkhart's mayor, James Perron, came to Baltimore to illustrate how his city had rejuvenated South Central and its residents' lives. Drawing parallels to West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester Cinderella story, Mr. Perron told how new houses, a neighborhood center, plans for a public health clinic and community policing have transformed the section into an area of civic pride.

As Mr. Perron explained South Central's conversion, 40 scholars and public officials from many other U.S. cities took note. As part of a two-day affordable housing seminar at the Johns Hopkins Policy Leadership Program, they came to stately Evergreen House on North Charles Street to acknowledge such success stories and develop a housing blueprint for urban and rural areas.


Lauded as shining examples of innovation were Charlotte, N.C.'s Gateway housing program, which targets families with incomes below $12,500 and helps them gain education, self sufficiency and homeownership, and Chicago's Gautreaux experiment, where residents of Section 8 subsidized housing were successfully integrated into white middle class suburbs.

"We all realized that you need to do a multi-purpose approach to housing, and I felt that it was a reassurance that we were on the right track," Mr. Perron said after the conference.

The participants, guests of Johns Hopkins, addressed the issues from a round table in the antique-filled mansion. They endured hours of lectures and slide presentations on urban, rural and international housing dilemmas with one common thread: the need for a multi-prong approach to housing.

Nearly 20 hours of discussion produced a list of 10 conclusions. They include:

* Implementation of a rigorous anti-discrimination approach to investment, which would get banks involved in inner city finance.

* Promoting goals of self sufficiency over housing ideals.

* Attacking housing not as a supply problem but as an income problem.

* Using a "wrap-around approach" to building communities and not just houses.


Many participants said their most striking realization was the similarity between urban and rural housing problems, despite the canyon of differences in each area's physical descriptions.

Small-town city officials such as Vicksburg, Miss. county supervisor Bill Lauderdale swapped notes with noted scholars like Brookings Institute senior fellow Anthony Downs. (Vicksburg a town of 47,000 in the western part of the state). A Wayne County (near Detroit) commissioner questioned James Rouse about strategies of his Enterprise Foundation. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke described Baltimore's housing successes and its warts as politicians from smaller towns shook their heads in understanding.

"Our homeless don't live on the street," Mr. Lauderdale said. "Because we are small and rural, most people know each other and when a family becomes home-less, they move in with another family. So you have three families living under one roof and that creates similar problems to the homeless in the large cities."

"The message is that the housing problems and urban distress problems are now creeping out to the suburbs," said Lester Salamon, director of the Hopkins policy institute. "Smaller towns and their people are now seeing this. Many people invited were from the South and smaller towns, and yet they were interested in the bigger city housing problems because of this."

LTC A consensus quickly developed that the largest housing problem is affordability. Low-income housing consultant Cushing N. Dolbeare reported the 1991 American Housing Survey shows the median income of all households at $28,000, while the median renter household income is $20,000. Ten percent of the renters reported their incomes were below $5,000, which means they could afford little more than $125 per month for rent and utilities. At that price, the nation's supply of decent housing is almost non-existent.

The conference was designed to allow free-ranging discussion of housing problems, the compilation of goals and a follow-up session in six months, most likely by teleconference. As each official returned home, it is hoped that the housing goals will ease their way into legislation and policy over the next few years, Mr. Salamon said.


"We are all witnessing the death of our cities in various ways and forms," he remarked. "I don't think we reinvented [housing strategy], I think that for many people there, they were put in a position to think about things that they don't normally think about. The message of the conference was that we cannot afford to let this deteriorate any further."

"We are dismayed by the persistent deterioration in the living conditions and the lives of poor people in our country," said James Rouse. "When we asked ourselves why this was so, we saw that there is a pervasive state of mind in America that accepts these conditions, does not understand their destructive impact on American society and believes that nothing can be done to overcome them."

Mr. Lauderdale said he learned a lot from the conference, but he quickly labeled himself a realist. It was fine to chew over the country's housing problems in the bubble of academia for two days, but he remained skeptical about whether broad policy change can or will occur.

"The realization from this group was that we haven't been doing it right -- it's not working," he said. "Something else has got to be done, like community involvement with education. The cycles have got to be broken, and it's the same with welfare, it's hand in hand. How will it happen? That will be an interesting situation. The American people, it's hard to get them to change unless you step on their toes or punch them in the nose. It will happen over time. The more people get together and discuss these programs, the more it will spur the action to change."

Melody Simmons covers housing issues for The Baltimore Sun.