Mom, 10 kids live in burned house Woman renewed lease with city 3 weeks after fire.

February 26, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

The Evening Sun reported yesterday that public housing tenant Deborah Wheeler had renewed her lease with the city housing authority, despite the fact that she is living in a burned-out house owned by the authority.

In fact, Wheeler signed an annual "review" of her eligibility as a public housing tenant, with the assumption that she would move to a new public housing unit, said Bill Toohey, authority spokesman.

2& The Evening Sun regrets the error.

Deborah Wheeler decided that she and her 10 children had few safe places to go after a fire damaged the rowhouse that they have been living in for the last eight years.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

She didn't want to move her children -- ages 1 to 17 years -- into a shelter for the homeless and she didn't want to move into a drug-plagued public housing project where housing officials made two apartments available for her family.

Instead, Wheeler, a single mother, moved back into her charred rowhouse on Brentwood Avenue near the Maryland Penitentiary, with the knowledge of her landlord -- the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Despite the burned and boarded condition of the second and third floors, the housing authority let her sign another year's lease three weeks after the Jan. 24 fire.

No repairs have been made on the house, Wheeler and seven of her children sleep on two double beds and one single bed crammed in the basement.

The other three children sleep on sofas on the first floor. They continue to use the shower and the house's only toilet located in the charred second-floor bathroom.

The rest of the second floor is heavily damaged, with burned debris still piled in the hallway and rooms. The third floor is also charred.

Bill Toohey, spokesman for the housing authority, said the housing authority offered two apartments in public housing projects -- one in Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore and one in Lexington Terrace-Poe Homes in West Baltimore.

"The offers to move [into the housing projects] would be temporary and she could move back into the house when it was restored," said Toohey.

"We could issue a notice to vacate and in fact our lawyers are reviewing the situation. It is in no one's interest to have her living in that kind of situation," Toohey said yesterday.

Toohey also noted that large homes in public housing are scarce in Baltimore. Of the 18,200 units of public housing, only 488 have five bedrooms, he said.

In addition, 30,000 poor families are on the waiting list for subsidized housing in the city. No new public housing has been built for almost 10 years, since then-President Reagan cut funds to build new subsidized homes for the poor.

Wheeler, 33, has lived in the rowhouse -- paying a subsidized rent of $154 a month -- in the poor Johnston Square neighborhood for eight years.

While she admits the neighborhood is a high crime area, "it's bad, but not as bad as a housing project.

"I've lived in a project before. It's hell. Every time you turn around, drug addicts are everywhere, people get killed in the hallways."

Wheeler said she is especially opposed to living in a housing project because three of her sons have learning disabilities.

Wheeler's 4-year-old son was playing with matches when he touched off the blaze, she said. Afterward, some of the children moved in with relatives and some stayed with Wheeler, who moved to a rowhouse next door to the burned-out house.

Wheeler said the rowhouse was too crowded because three other families were already staying there when she and her children moved in. Whenever she cooked for her children, she found herself feeding several children from the other families, she said.

Meanwhile, one of her teen-age sons stayed in the burned home to protect the family's possessions from thieves. But someone broke into the basement on Feb. 3, when Wheeler's son was not in the house.

"I called [the housing authority] and asked them to board up the basement window, but they never came," she said last week in her living room, which was jammed with the clothing donated to her by the Red Cross and some she salvaged from the fire.

Wheeler moved her family back into the house shortly after the break-in and signed a new lease with the housing authority on Feb. 11.

She said she is surprised housing officials allow her family to remain in the house.

"When you sign a contract to renew your lease, it means they're responsible for you, so I think it's crazy for them to let you live in a burned-out house," said Wheeler.

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