What makes Baltimore unique is its many distinct neighborhoods -- 70 to 75 in all. Baltimore has more ethnic concentrations than any other city its size in the country -- including Little Italy; Little Lithuania; Fells Point with large Greek, Hispanic and Polish populations; German, Estonian and Latvian enclaves in East Baltimore, and predominantly Jewish and black neighborhoods.
"We [in Baltimore] have a marvelous stock of 19th century masonry rowhouses that we are trying to rehabilitate and save," said Housing Commissioner M.J. Brodie, who grew up in a Baltimore rowhouse and who believes that this type of housing, with its unusual combination of privacy and neighborhood feeling, promotes a sense of community.
"Baltimore's situation has never been analagous to Washington and never will be," said Brodie. "They are totally different situations. Baltimore has had relatively stable neighborhoods with a lot of -- in a positive sense -- stubborn people. They are inclined to stay where they are, to make investments, and to pass on housing from generation to generation, so their mortgages are paid off."
The city's Department of Housing and Community Development is active in about 35 neighborhoods with programs to rehabilitate houses, subsidize mortgages for low-income residents and counsel them on home ownership.
Few city officials are involved more personally with the current renaissance in Baltimore neighborhoods than William D. Schaefer, a Democrat who has been mayor of the city since 1971. The mayor spends many weekends touring city neighborhoods, he says, following up on citizen complaints and looking for houses to be rehabilitated by the city. With 125 housing inspectors to cover 300,000 dwelling units, Schaefer considers himself a volunteer member of the housing and sanitation inspection team. He believes that home ownership is the key to solving problems in low-income neighborhoods.
"We have made great strides in the past 10 years. People know that we care about neighborhoods," said Schaefer. "We spend 85 percent of our time in neighborhoods, although Harborplace gets all the national publicity.You ride around the neighborhoods "and you're going to see that the lawns are cut, the alleys are clear, backyards have flowers, places are painted. Those are the things we have been able to do."
Schaefer's newest effort to build civic pride is a program called "Baltimore Sparkle," recently begun in three pilots neighborhoods. Residents of Mayfield, Windsor Hills and Woodberry will focus on particular problems and will work with city officials to correct them.
"We will have a contract with the community that highlights our mutual responsibilities. Certainly Sparkle demonstrates the need for a neighborhood to help itself," said Schaefer. "But the city must, and will, identify the services that can be provided, set up timetables and work to assure mutual support."
The city engages in both direct and indirect rehabilitation. Direct housing assistance has been provided to more than 20,000 families in the 5 years that federal funds have been available through the Community Development Block Grant program. In the last 8 to 10 years, 2,000 vacant houses have been converted to scattered-site public housing. About 500 units are rehabbed each year. Roughly 300 to 350 become public housing and the reat are sold to moderate-income homeowners at a loss. A homeowner might pay $15,000 to $20,000 for a house that costs $30,000 to $40,000 to rehabilitate. Block grant funds make up the difference.
Another approach is to lend money to homeowners to rehabilitate their property. In the past 10 years, about $30 million has been loaned in federal, state and local funds. $"We're going to have to tighten our belts [when the federal government introduces budget cuts]," said Brodie. "We have home-grown programs, like the Home Finance Program. We haven't lived simply depending on the federal government but, clearly, the cuts will hurt low-income people in the city. If Section 8 is either cut back or eliminated and if public housing subsidies are drastically affected, that's going to hurt people in the city. The real effect will be to make life worse for low-income people and that is deplorable. We are concerned about the cuts but we don't despair."