No children in high-rise, study urges Baltimore task force would move families

November 21, 1990|By Ginger Thompson

A special task force has concluded that children do not belong in Baltimore's public housing high-rises -- notorious for drugs, violence and vandalism -- and recommended that families with children be moved to other public housing units around the city.

In a letter prepared for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Robert W. Hearn, executive director of the Baltimore Housing Authority, the 14-member task force suggests that apartments in high-rise buildings at George B. Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts be turned into units for adults only.

But the task force is still considering whether the city's 18 dilapidated family high-rises -- home to 2,000 people -- should continue to be managed by the city or sold to private developers.

"The truth is that the buildings are just getting worse and worse," said Sonya Merchant, a member of the task force who has lived at Lafayette Homes for 10 years. She blames both the housing authority and tenants for the buildings' problems.

"I mean, if the people are going to tear things up, urinate on the walls and buy drugs, then things will never get better," she said.

Relocating tenants from the high-rises would be a massive task, costing millions and requiring years. Although the city has low-rise housing units available, they could not possibly accommodate all the families in the high-rises.

Previous relocations, though difficult, have been successful. For instance, it took three years in the early 1980s to complete the relocation of families from Fremont House, a high-rise building in the Murphy Homes complex once notorious for crime. Since the conversion of Fremont to an apartment tower for the elderly, however, it has been recognized as one of the most pleasant public housing buildings in the city.

The task force -- which included residents of public housing, politicians, education officials, lawyers and leaders of housing advocacy groups -- was established in February by Mr. Hearn to determine the best use for more than $100 million in federal funds that the Housing Authority expects to receive over the next 10 years.

The letter to Mayor Schmoke and Mr. Hearn, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, was not the group's final report, and the recommendations still must be fine-tuned, sources said. More meetings of the task force are to be scheduled.

Implementation of the task force's recommendations will then depend on approval by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and on the availability of money and alternative housing, task force members said.

"As the task force's initial findings state, we must now focus on the feasibility of developing a strategy to implement these suggested recommendations, including continuing discussions among HUD, our staff and the residents of the high-rise communities," Mr. Hearn said in a prepared statement given to ** The Sun in response to requests for an interview.

Options explored by the task force -- chaired by Michael J. Kelley, dean of the University of Maryland law school -- ranged from complete modernization of the high-rises to conversion to apartments for the elderly to demolition.

Task force members learned that while the high-rises are structurally sound, security and maintenance costs make them the most expensive public housing units to operate.

The 18 buildings range from 11 to 14 stories high. Most of the residents are single mothers with two children under age 12. Many residents of the high-rises say that filth and crime make living in them unbearable.

The hallways often reek of urine, dirty diapers or discarded scraps of food. Elevators constantly break down. Drug dealers use the hallways and stairwells as safe havens from police, and eruptions of violence are increasingly common.

The buildings also house high numbers of pregnant teens and high school dropouts.

"I don't see why [the Housing Authority of Baltimore City] ever built those high-rises for families in the first place," said Rose Fletcher, a tenant of Murphy Homes for 27 years who just moved from a high-rise to a low-rise unit.

"I don't know who thought of putting families on top of each other like that -- especially the children, because they have no place to play, so they get into trouble," Ms. Fletcher said. "I thank God for getting me out of there."

Barbara McKinney, 38, a member of the task force who grew up in Lexington Terrace, said she was skeptical about the idea of moving families out of the high-rises because she didn't like the idea of abandoning her home.

"But under this plan, the families in the high-rises are going to be guaranteed nice clean homes -- with the same number of bedrooms they have now," she said. "They aren't just going to be kicked out into the street."

She said the task force members also recommend that the Housing Authority implement a program in which relocated tenants could be taught basic life skills, such as how to manage a household, budget their money and care for their children.

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