Building on faith


It is easy to be skeptical about low-income housing and efforts to reverse the decline in neighborhoods pockmarked by abandonment and flight. Yet there is hope as long as faith is sustained.

This is the contention of Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, an intriguing initiative which is in the process of rehabilitating 100 homes in a West Baltimore neighborhood that has been struggling to arrest rapid deterioration. Since 1989, 35 homes have been completed and sold to neighborhood residents. Work is under way on 20 more.

The spiritual engine of the project is New Song Community Church, a Presbyterian congregation of some 60 members at 1358 North Gilmor Street. But the program has expanded beyond denominational borders and is supported by dozens of private individuals, whose religious backgrounds range from Jewish to Catholic, as well as a number of major corporations.

They take their inspiration from the Old Testament's command: "Your people will rebuild what has long been in ruins, building again on the old foundations. You will be known as the people who rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined houses."

Over a five-day period starting Monday, a total of 500 volunteers are expected to descend on Sandtown to work on houses during Habitat's annual building week.

Crews of construction professionals will work side by side with employees of banks and other firms sponsoring houses. Also often involved are would-be homeowners, who are required to build "sweat equity" as part of the purchase agreement.

The Habitat rehabilitation is just one part of a wider city-led effort to rebuild Sandtown-Winchester, a once-thriving working class neighborhood which declined rapidly after desegregation opened housing and job opportunities to blacks.

Projects such as clusters of a total of 300 new Nehemiah townhouses have helped slow the flight of families. Some families who had left Sandtown-Winchester have actually returned, seeing evidence of concentrated efforts to improve the neighborhood. The scarcity of jobs, though, hampers the larger community's revitalization efforts.

Habitat for Humanity, a self-help project in which former President Jimmy Carter has played a leading role, currently has 1,050 affiliates in the United States. Like the Sandtown program they foster hope and faith in life and renewal.

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