MANY AMERICANS know developer James Rouse as the man lionized in a Time cover story for bringing new birth to old center cities through such glittering retail projects as Boston's Faneuil Marketplace, Philadelphia's Gallery at Market East and Harborplace in Baltimore. Businessmen know him as the man whose development firm launched $2 billion worth of projects over its 40-year history and now operates 53 shopping centers across the country. And Rouse is also the man who founded Columbia, the city between Washington and Baltimore that is considered America's most successful modern-day "new town."

Now there is a strong likelihood that Rouse will become known for a venture of quite another character. Through the Enterprise Foundation he has just begun, he is sparking efforts in cities across the nation to refurbish slum housing for "the poorest of the poor." The goal: that they can share title to their apartment units and be able to resist the wave of evictions flooding across poor neighborhoods as a result of housing deterioration, "gentrification" by middle-class people -- or both.

To Rouse's close friends, this new departure comes as no surprise -- indeed, in some respects it is no new departure at all. For all the while there has been another side to Rouse, now 67, marking him as one of those rare entrepreneurs whose concerns extend to the poor and downtrodden as well as the affluent and trendy of urban America.

Thirty-three years ago Rouse headed a program to turn a rundown Baltimore slum into a livable community. And in the '60s, he became involved with the Church of the Saviour, an inner-city congregation in Washington renowned for the spiritual commitment of its communicants and the bold adventures it has inaugurated in every area from prison work and children's programs to refugee problems in Thailand.

Eight years ago, the church decided to tackle the problem of slum housing in the city's Adams-Morgan area. It formed Jubilee Housing, a nonprofit group, and purchased two rundown apartment houses. The plan was to renovate them with volunteer help and make them fit and livable for their current tenants.

Rouse was so committed to the project that he personally purchased the two buildings, to be repaid from later fund raising. He now recalls wryly that the "Ritz" and the "Mozart" had ripped-out doors and mailboxes. The elevators were inoperable and a strench rose from garbage thrown down the shafts and stairways. The day after Jubilee Housing took control of the tenements, the District of Columbia government filed notice of 947 housing code violations.

Yet three years later, after 50,000 hours of volunteer help (largely by middle-class outsiders drawn in by Jubilee), all the violations were cured and the buildings were in livable condition. Today Jubilee Housing has gone on to acquire three more buildings, for a total of 213 units within a nine-block radius. Its goal is 400 units, with 20 percent of the housing reserved for poor folk in the fast-gentrifying Adams-Morgan area.

The Jubilee experience has been no bed of roses. Many residents first reacted with hostility, fearing another remove-the-poor-and- make-way-for-the-rich scam. Only months of exposure to volunteers, formation of tenant committees on every subject from rent payment to law and order, and finally work toward resident ownership began to crack the suspicion. (Jubilee is opting for the European-style mutual housing model, in which tenants get no cash equity but do have a certificate guaranteeing them permanent residence, thus allaying poor people's greatest fear -- eviction.)

For insecure families, it was found, housing is just a first step. So Jubilee launched a health service, a "committee of compassion" to raise funds for tenants' emergency needs, a program to create new commercial enterprises such as a recently inaugurated bakery, and finally an employment agency to place residents in jobs outside the neighborhood.

Finally, Jubilee has 30 firms donating legal, architectural, building, accounting and property management skills. Three (including the Rouse Company) donate full-time personnel.

Adams-Morgan remains a troubled neighborhood. Church of the Saviour minister Gordon Cosby told me of a dramatic upturn in fear, despair, drug use and violence in recent months. Jubilee vice president Robert Boulter was beaten near his office, barely escaping death. But what Jubilee means to hundreds of its residents is quite simply hope where there had been none before.

It is precisely that model that James Rouse would now spread coast-to-coast with his new Enterprise Foundation. Retired now as chief executive officer of the Rouse Company (though he continues as board chairman), he is devoting virtually full time to raising at least $15 million by next December. Contributions and pledges include $1 million each from the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, the Mott Foundation and Rouse personally, $500,000 from the Denver-based Piton Foundation and a preliminary $2.5 million Ford Foundation commitment.

Close replicas of Jubilee Housing have sprung up in Louisville, Denver, Oakland and Pittsburgh, with others expected soon. Each, says Rouse, will produce clean housing for the poor at a fraction of the cost of government housing programs now periled by budget cuts.

As a final fillip, Rouse has created a brand- new, profit-motivated real-estate development firm -- the Enterprise Development Company -- which will be totally owned by and serve as a handy cash cow for the Enterprise Foundation. The new development firm, staffed with some of the Rouse Company's most seasoned operatives, will enter into joint development ventures with smaller firms on everything from hotels to small shopping malls.

In all this, one sees the kind of boldly independent thinking -- on every front from day- to-day work with poor tenants to innovative financing and hands-on corporate involvement -- which this country needs to save lives and a civilized order in its cities. Just as importantly, it shows what one man who, having come to know some of the poor as personal friends rather than objects of distant charity, can do to give them a better chance in life. By Neal R. Peirce; Neal Peirce writes a weekly column for The Washington Post Writers Group.