Five years ago Mary Ellis Fredrick lived in a run-down house in Savannah's Victorian District, a downtown neighborhood where many buildings owned by absentee landlords have fallen into disrepair.
''The house had roaches and rats, and the locks on the door were not secure, '' she recalls. ''It was just awful, it really was.''
Today Mrs. Fredrick, her mother, her teen-age daughter, and her 20-year-old son live in a spotless four-bedroom apartment with pale yellow walls and shiny hardwood floors. It was renovated by the nonprofit Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project Inc.
''I enjoy it here. (The apartment) is just like a newborn baby - that's the way I treat it,'' she says with pride, pointing out special features such as a well-equipped utility closet and a cozy breakfast nook.
Mrs. Fredrick and hundreds of other low-income families have benefited from an innovative program run by Savannah Landmark that restores the neighborhood's Victorian homes without displacing the residents - a goal seldom realized in preservation programs. The organization won a presidential award from the Carter administration for its work and has spurred interest from housing and economic development groups in other cities working to revive declining neighborhoods.
Savannah's Victorian District is a quiet community with tree-lined streets and homes decorated with many period details such as ornate sawn-wood porches, stained glass, brackets, and bay windows. In 1974 the 45-block area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. About 80 percent of the residents are renters, 35 percent are elderly, and many are minority. Some have lived in the neighborhood 30 years or more.
In the mid-1970s Lee Adler, a key figure in the restoration of Savannah's fashionable historic district downtown, hit upon a scheme to restore the dilapidated buildings in the Victorian neighborhood while allowing the families to stay. According to Mr. Adler's plan, Savannah Landmark would purchase properties and then act as the landlord for the buildings it bought and renovated.
To avoid outpricing the tenants, Mrs. Adler says, ''We decided rent subsidy was the key to it.''
Since the restoration work began in 1977, Savannah Landmark has completed 300 apartment units in the Victorian District, 44 of which are part of new buildings designed to blend with the character of the existing homes. The renovated buildings, freshly painted, stand as beacons to the many families still living in tenement conditions and waiting for new housing.
''Just about every tenant we have originally lived in the Victorian District, '' says Rita Jones, Savannah Landmark director.
Aided by a loan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Savannah Landmark is about to start rehabilitating another round of 75 to 100 apartment units. When this set is finished, bringing the total to about 400 units, the organization's 10 staff members will continue to manage and maintain the properties.
Initially, most of the buildings in the district require extensive renovation , sometimes starting with just the shell. The average renovation cost for each apartment is about $27,000.
The money to buy and renovate the buildings has come from various public and private sources. Local banks, led by Savannah's minority-owned Carver State Bank , have extended credit, and Savannah citizens have made private donations.
Among approximately 50 sponsors, substantial contributions have come from the Ford Foundation, the City of Savannah, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and federal community block grants. Funds to train workers to restore the buildings came from the former Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).
All renters in the the 300 apartment units already completed by Savannah Landmark are aided by federal Section 8 subsidy from HUD. Under Section 8, the tenant pays 30 percent of his or her income for rent, and HUD makes up the difference between the renter's contribution and the apartment's market value.
Savannah Landmark will repay its loans from the rents and subsidies. The Section 8 subsidy will cover the existing apartments for 20 years but is no longer in effect for new projects. Savannah Landmark is currently exploring alternate ways to keep the rents affordable in its newest group of units.
Ultimately, Savannah Landmark and other observers see the long-term stability of the neighborhood resulting from a mix of renters and moderate-income homeowners.
To help achieve this goal, the Historic Savannah Foundation, the group responsible for the restoration of Savannah's Historic District downtown, is buying pockets of buildings for resale to moderate-income Savannahians. Another current project is the renovation of a handsome Victorian building financed by a limited partnership of private investors. Before the apartments are rented, the restored building with three one-bedroom units will open as a decorator showhouse in the fall.
According to Rita Jones, about $2 million of private investment has been put into the Victorian District so far to renovate single-family homes and apartment buildings totaling 250 units.
''Some moderate-income white people are buying into the neighborhood, but it's still a pioneering effort in that respect,'' she says.
Community response to Savannah Landmark has been enthusiastic. Tenants in the restored buildings belong to the Tenants' Council, which has become a social force alongside area churches. Savannah Landmark's board of directors includes poor people and blacks.
''The new housing has helped morale in the neighborhood,'' says Ida Edmonson, who lives in one of the first units renovated by Savannah Landmark and is president of the Tenants' Council. The council has initiated crime-watch programs, community clean-up campaigns, Christmas celebrations, and summer programs for children. Mrs. Edmonson helps tenants learn basic maintenance techniques and landscaping.
Residents are proud of their neighborhood but cannot afford home ownership, says Mrs. Jones. Savannah Landmark's focus on upgrading rental properties ''has really been the answer here for us.''