In order to assist in furthering the Civil Rights work of the Archdiocese of Washington, then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle created the Committee on Community Relations in 1965. The committee was to be the main vehicle through which the archdiocese would become more involved in justice and poverty issues.  Archbishop O’Boyle named then-Father Geno Baroni as the executive secretary of the committee. 

By 1968, the committee had become the archdiocese’s Office of Urban Affairs.  Father Baroni was expanding the work he had begun at the V Street Center at St Augustine’s Church to the whole archdiocese. He also created the Archdiocesan Urban Redevelopment Corporation, which would use Federal housing grant money to support construction and redevelopment of the decaying urban neighborhoods in the District.  The archdiocese provided $400,000 in seed money for the project.  

Morris MacGregor in his biography, Steadfast in the Faith: The Life of Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, argued that, “O’Boyle’s instincts honed by 50 years of the results of urban poverty and neglect…led him to accept the proposition that housing for the poor was a moral issue and, therefore, the Church should be involved in revitalizing urban neighborhoods.”

Father Baroni’s initial idea seemed simple enough.  The corporation would buy about 3,000 houses within the District of Columbia, rehabilitate them, and then sell them to individual families who needed safe homes. He wanted to make enough profit on each house so that the corporation could be self-sustaining.  Father Baroni planned to use his connections to some people who owned the dilapidated houses in the city and who were themselves wealthy Catholics who lived in the suburbs. He knew one of these men well and worked out a deal with him to buy 108 houses in January 1969.  Baroni had big plans and, though he knew he was in over his head, he hoped that he and those around him would be able to pull this off.  

But it only took a few months for the problems to set in. Father Baroni paid several thousand dollars for each house, even though most were uninhabitable. They also found out that federal housing laws had a huge number of requirements that they had not prepared for.  When a house was completed and they wanted to sell it to a needy family, it was often impossible for these poor families to qualify for the necessary mortgage loans. 

The Federal Housing Authority was also valuing the completed houses at a lower price than the corporation had paid to buy and rehabilitate them, so they were losing money on each property. Finally, it seemed that contractors were ripping them off, perhaps figuring that since the money was coming from the Church and the government, they could charge high prices for low grade work and make a huge profit. The construction sites were also vandalized, and appliances and fixtures were stolen as soon as they were installed.  Name a problem and Father Baroni experienced it in this effort.  

By 1970, Father Baroni had to give up on this project.  He had to give back many of the 108 houses he had agreed to buy.  In the end, the archdiocese only rehabilitated a few dozen homes.

Washington Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle dedicated nine houses from 20 to 32 K Street, N.W., on Nov. 9, 1968.  He is pictured here with Mrs. Madeline Morton, then the homeowner at 26 K Street, N.W., cutting the ribbon on her rehabilitated home.  The work was done through the Archdiocese of Washington’s Urban Redevelopment Corporation.  (Photo from Catholic Standard archives)

But the project for all of its problems did have a few successes. The Archdiocese of Washington’s Urban Redevelopment Corporation was the first non-profit in Washington to complete rehabilitation of homes for ownership by low-income families under the Federal Housing Administration’s 221(h) program.  Also several of the families in the program became the first in the nation to qualify for a new government interest subsidy under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the last major piece of Civil Rights legislation passed by the administration of President Lyndon Johnson.  

This effort also prepared Father Baroni for the later roles that he would take up at the U.S. Catholic Conference, as president of the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, and beginning in 1977 as assistant secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, working directly with the same programs that had helped his housing project in the archdiocese fail.  

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)