Troubled Housing Projects

November 24, 1990

Good ideas do not need to be expressed in voluminous documents. A task force studying modernization of 18 high-rise towers owned by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City is a splendid example. In one page it has proposed a total overhaul of those public housing complexes, which are notorious for drugs, violence and vandalism.

The task force studied four high-rise buildings at George BMurphy Homes, five at Lexington Terrace, three at Flag House Courts and six at Lafayette Courts. In each case, it recommended that the towers be converted from family units to adult use only. No one who is familiar with those trouble-plagued warrens needs to be told why: they were never intended to house infants, toddlers or defenseless women.

The task force is now studying the mechanics of how this can be done. It also is pondering whether the public housing projects should continue to be managed by the city or sold, perhaps even simply transferred, to private developers.

In essence, it is proposing to spend $100 million in anticipated federal housing funds over the next six years to provide low-rise housing alternatives for families with small children. Scattered-site public housing, the task force argues, is more desirable and cheaper to maintain. It is unclear whether this is acceptable to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city's problem-solving efforts need to be met with flexibility and understanding from HUD in Washington. That is the money side of the equation. But that should not prevent the city from doing things locally to promote the recommended changes. For example, the Housing Authority could start converting high-rise units to adult use through internal policies affecting placement.

Public housing is a nationwide scandal. What started amunicipal housing of last resort has evolved into permanent dwelling arrangements for thousands of people who could afford to move out of public housing but do not want to. Many of these tenants have stayed in public housing for up to three decades and pay rents so high that they would have no trouble finding comparable accommodations on the commercial rental market. Yet they stay, depriving 40,000 people on waiting lists who truly need a shelter of last resort.

High-rise placement policies, who is eligible for public housinand for how long pose difficult problems. As the Housing Authority considers conversion of the high-rise towers from family use to adults-only units, it will have to confront these thorny questions.

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