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Habitat's new goal: 45 homes


They've called it "building on hope" and "building on faith," transforming decaying rowhouses in a blighted, 12-block section of Sandtown into bright, tidy homes residents proudly call their own.

Relying on hundreds of volunteers with hammers and shovels, donated carpeting, wallboard and nails and corporate contributions, Sandtown Habitat for Humanity has rehabbed 55 vacant houses in the West Baltimore neighborhood since 1992, kicking each year's work off with a "blitz-build" week.

Continuing work that has enabled dozens of lifelong Sandtown residents to become homeowners for the first time, Habitat plans its fourth annual "blitz-build" weeks, June 26 through June 30 and July 17 through July 21. This year's "Building on Love" weeks mark the start of rebuilding another 45 homes.

During those weeks, Sandtown Habitat's 12-member staff will be joined by volunteers, subcontractors and prospective homeowners in demolishing buildings, framing and roofing houses and installing new windows, plumbing, electrical systems and drywall.

The group still can use additional corporate sponsors who can offer grants or raise money to meet Habitat's $30,000-per-house acquisition and rehab costs, said LaVerne Cooper, co-executive director of Sandtown Habitat. The project also needs building materials, especially drywall and lumber, she said. Because of donated materials and volunteer labor, including 320 hours of sweat equity required of each homebuyer, homes are sold at cost to low-income buyers for about $30,000 but are valued at closer to $90,000.

Habitat can always use more volunteers, said Ms. Cooper, especially -- but not limited to -- those with building skills.

"This is a process which empowers the community to take part," said Ms. Cooper, 42, a Habitat homeowner who grew up on North Stricker Street when Sandtown was a close-knit community of factory workers and thriving businesses. "Every person has something to contribute to building the community."

The group has no shortage of prospective homeowners, she said. With some 400 applications on file, the group never advertises for buyers, drawn by word of mouth.

Most come from Sandtown, a community of more than 10,000 people southwest of North and Pennsylvania avenues beset by poverty and drug abuse, or from other inner-city neighborhoods. Habitat selects homeowners based on need and ability to pay. No-interest mortgage financing is provided through Baltimore's Community Development Financing Corp., with construction financing through the Enterprise Foundation.

When the Rev. Mark Gornik moved to the neighborhood nine years ago -- before it became the target of renewal efforts by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the Enterprise Foundation -- he was shocked by the substandard rental housing for which residents paid up to 70 percent of their income. Families lived in narrow rowhouses with collapsed ceilings and floors, windows that didn't shut and inadequate heating.

Some homes "should have been condemned," said Mr. Gornik, who established New Song Community Church on North Gilmor Street, then in 1989 set up the church-based affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International with Allan Tibbels, now co-executive director. At that time, most affiliates were building new homes in rural areas. The Sandtown group, still one of the only ones rehabbing homes in the inner city, plans later this year to build its first new homes, 26 units on two decaying blocks the city will raze.

The affiliate is closing in on its original goal of completing 100 rehabbed homes, which it kicked off in 1992 with a blitz-build week attended by former President Jimmy Carter. The group is focusing on 12 blocks bounded by Fulton Avenue on the west, North Carey Street on the east, Laurens Street on the south and Westwood on the north.

To volunteer assistance, call the Habitat office at 669-3309.

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