First came a study in November suggesting that high-rise public housing in Baltimore has proven a failure as a place for young families to develop. Now comes evidence that one of the few alternatives -- so-called "scattered-site housing," consisting largely of renovated row houses in poor, inner-city neighborhoods -- is also in trouble. Yesterday The Evening Sun's Joan Jacobson reported that some 300 units owned by the Housing Authority currently are vacant, and that many have been so severely vandalized they lack plumbing, aluminum windows and even the plywood planks the city installed to board them up.
To put the figures in perspective, the 300 row houses in question represent only a relatively small fraction of the city's 18,000 public housing units, which include high-rise projects, senior citizens' housing and conventional low-rise developments. Yet the shocking fact is, the current number of vacant and abandoned units still represents an increase of between 500 percent and 600 percent over just a few years ago. What accounts for the spiraling number of vacant dwellings at the very time homelessness is on the rise?
Several explanations have been offered. Housing officials say many of the vacant units are "partial-rehabs" -- buildings taken over by the Housing Authority 20 years ago that were never completely restored and are now showing their age. In addition, new federal rules and red tape make restoring such units more difficult and expensive than in the past; as a result, vandalized units tend to stay vacant longer. Finally, the drug crisis and the rise in inner-city poverty over the last decade have intensified the isolation and desperation of families in public housing, leaving poor residents less able than ever to cope with eviction and abandonment.