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Housing specialists tour Baltimore


They looked like any other group of tourists roaming Baltimore, emerging from two large buses last week toting cameras, dressed in shorts, tennis shoes and hats to block the sun.

But the 60 housing specialists, most from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offices around the country -- using Baltimore as a classroom for the do's and don'ts of affordable housing development -- got a glimpse of the city few visitors see.

Their tour guides and instructors, a developer and a former state housing secretary, pointed out architectural details of 19th-century rowhouses and well-designed new homes with tidy, fenced-in yards.

But they also noted the visible problems posing the greatest challenges to community development -- the trash littering the streets, blocks of abandoned homes, a known open-air drug market.

The visitors stopped to see the benefits of garden-style apartments and newly purchased, renovated rowhouses. Then they climbed graffiti-covered stairwells and walked through the dingy, cramped apartments of a public high-rise building that is to be torn down.

The program for housing professionals, offered by the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs, attempts to give participants with narrow specialties an overview of needs confronting suburban, urban and rural communities, said Jacqueline H. Rogers, a faculty member and former secretary of the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The students come to the College Park campus for one of the two-week courses of lectures, case studies and field trips to Baltimore, Montgomery County and Western Maryland.

They work for HUD, local governments or nonprofit developers and have backgrounds as varied as appraisers, financial analysts and construction overseers.

The training, developed at the request of HUD, comes while Congress is re-examining HUD's role and planning cutbacks to streamline the department, including handing over money to cities and states to perform HUD functions. At the same time, HUD and the Clinton administration have launched a national homeownership plan that relies on the creation of public-private partnerships at the grass-roots level.

In Baltimore last week, university faculty members Ms. Rogers and Kathleen McDonald, president of nonprofit developer Community Builders Inc., guided the tour through Washington Village, past the site of an old factory that Ryan Homes plans to clear for construction of 126 townhouses. The Pigtown-area development, an attempt to draw middle-class residents to the city, is expected to help stabilize the neighborhood west of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Ms. Rogers said.

The group passed vacant, boarded homes in Harlem Park and Sandtown-Winchester.

"The city has been through good and bad," Ms. Rogers told her students. "It was down in the late '60s and had a renaissance in the '70s" when federal grants were more widely available.

But neighborhoods deteriorated as federal money dried up and middle-class residents fled to the suburbs, she said.

The participants stopped at Eubie Blake Place on Lexington Street to see two of the 22 homes that Ms. McDonald's company has rehabbed. With the help of HUD grants, she has rebuilt the city-acquired properties at a cost of $75,000 each but has been able to sell them for about $50,000, enabling buyers to make payments close to that neighborhood's typical rent.

They ended the tour in an apartment in the Lexington Terrace public high-rise. "This is an example of what absolutely does not work in the state of Maryland," Ms. Rogers said.

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