City-owned houses left vacant, easy prey for vandals

February 07, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun

Not long ago, these houses were the proudest on their blocks, a cornerstone of Baltimore's renaissance in its poorest neighborhoods.

The 2,800 newly renovated rowhouses were scattered throughout the inner city. They were supposed to be new homes for public-housing tenants.

Today, 22 years after the first houses were rehabilitated, about 300 of them stand battered and vacant, many stripped by vandals, without doors or windows to protect what little is left inside. Once the nicest houses on the block, they are now eyesores.

Many of the rowhouses -- known as scattered-sites public housing -- have stood vacant for more than a year.

Typically, the houses were vandalized after the tenants moved voluntarily or were evicted. The vandals stripped the houses before the housing authority could move new tenants into them.

But housing authority officials concede that in some cases vandals were not solely responsible for all the damage. Some of it was caused by tenants.

Robert W. Hearn, housing commissioner and director of the housing authority, said "everyday living by large families" had caused "wear and tear" on some houses.

Hearn linked the vandalism to poverty in the houses' neighborhoods.

"In terms of vandalism, that says something about the scarcity of [job] opportunities for people. It's kind of a last resort. That doesn't make it legal or legitimate, but it explains what we're confronted with," he said.

The vandals have stolen plumbing, aluminum windows and even the plywood the city uses to board up the houses. LaVerne McWhite, senior housing manager at the housing authority, said some of the vandalism was done by addicts needing drug money.

"We board and reboard and reboard, as many as 10 times," said McWhite.

Housing officials said the agency plans to renovate the vacant houses, but additional federal money is necessary for the repairs.

A reporter drove through East and West Baltimore and observed several wrecked houses without windows or doors.

Two examples were city-owned houses at 1018 and 1019 N. Arlington Ave. in West Baltimore.

These were houses that originally were rehabilitated for an average of $40,000 to $45,000 in federal money.

The scattered-sites houses are part of Baltimore's public housing program, which includes 18,000 units. There are currently 30,000 families on the city's waiting list for subsidized housing.

The city's scattered-sites program was started in 1969 by Robert C. Embry Jr., who was then the city's housing commissioner and the housing authority director

Under the scattered-sites program, the federal government gave local housing authorities money to purchase houses which were rented to public-housing tenants. The program gives public-housing tenants an alternative to high-rise family projects.

Asked about the large number of vacant scattered-sites houses, Embry -- now president of the Abell Foundation -- expressed doubt that the housing authority is effectively managing the properties.

Embry said:

"This reinforces my concern for what I hear about maintenance and rent collection at the housing authority. I'm very concerned about the direction the housing authority is going. Management is starting to decline."

Baltimore was the second U.S. city to develop a scattered-sites public housing program. Embry modeled Baltimore's program on a similar one in Philadelphia.

Besides providing an alternative to high-rise projects, the program was supposed provide a means for rehabilitating vacant houses "that would otherwise pull down other houses" on the blocks where they were located, Embry said.

He also noted that renovating rowhouses was cheaper than building new houses.

The program was "central to the whole strategy" of trying to build up Baltimore's inner-city communities."

Now, as so many houses become vacant, he said, "it can have a reverse strategy."

Hearn, responding to Embry's criticism, said, "there's been no decline in the quality of management. The people who were noted for managing the housing authority are still here."

As for the housing authority's ability to collect rents, Hearn said, "We have one of the best track records around. I have no idea what Mr. Embry is referring to."

Community housing activists began noticing the vacant houses in the last few years in various communities.

Jesse Alfriend works for St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, scouting Baltimore's neighborhoods for vacant houses for non-profit groups to renovate.

He said he was surprised when he began noticing empty public-housing properties about a year and a half ago.

"I'm looking at any boarded house and it was obvious that these were previously renovated by the housing authority," he said, noting that the housing authority uses a standard type of lettering for its housing numbers and similar paint colors on most of its houses.

"I would call and inquire and they said they were waiting for funding," he added.

Charlie Duff, director of Jubilee Baltimore, which renovates and manages homes in East Baltimore, said he has noticed two vacant public-housing row homes on the 2000 block of E. Baltimore St.

"It doesn't surprise me, it depresses me," he said, noting that the houses were most likely renovated 15 years ago and probably needed repairs even before they became vacant.

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