Schmoke criticized on housing policies Troubles with U.S., own officials cited.

July 23, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke took office in December 1987 just as Baltimore was being hit the hardest by Reagan administration cutbacks in the federal housing budget. There was no money to build new public housing and several city-run programs for low-income renters and prospective home buyers had been either curtailed or killed.

Nevertheless, Schmoke vowed to create new low- to moderate-income housing and to recycle dilapidated vacant houses back into the city's housing stock.

Now, Schmoke is seeking a second term and his re-election campaign has focused on several housing efforts he says fulfilled his campaign promises of four years ago.

One of the administration's most highly publicized accomplishments is the Baltimore Nehemiah Housing project -- 283 new homes that will be sold to low-income buyers in West Baltimore. The $25 million project was a joint effort between the city, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development -- a consortium of city churches -- and the non-profit Enterprise Foundation.

In another effort to stimulate home ownership, Schmoke created the Homeownership Institute that operates in the city's housing department. The institute counsels first-time home buyers and helps them to secure mortgages. Over the past two years, the institute has created about 2,800 new homeowners, the administration says.

There were about 5,000 vacant buildings in the city when Schmoke took office and the figure has risen to more than 6,000. Schmoke opened the Community Development Finance Corp. to deal with the problem. CDFC makes low-interest loans to developers who want to create new housing by renovating the vacant buildings. So far, CDFC has earmarked $20 million to convert 215 vacant buildings into 690 housing units, says CDFC executive vice president Frank Coakley.

While the Schmoke administration has scored some successes with its housing initiatives, it also has been stung by the following problems in the city's housing department:

* The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has asked the city to return about $5 million after determining that city housing officials inadequately monitored the Community Development Block Grant Program.

Last November, in an unusually critical report, HUD questioned the city's ability to administer the block program, which is funded with more than $20 million a year in federal money. Federal auditors have since begun scrutinizing city records for possible misuse of funds. The city desperately needs the money fund housing renovation, community centers for the poor, minority business loans and other programs.

* The Schmoke administration failed to use $3 million available from the state for low-interest housing rehabilitation loans, according to the state's Community Development Administration. Because the city failed to tap the funds from the Maryland Housing Rehabilitation Program, the money was awarded to other jurisdictions.

* In August 1989, HUD forced the city to return more than half a million dollars the city failed to spend to rehabilitate apartment buildings for low-income families. At that time, city officials said they were unable to find developers interested in the program because it offered only partial financing. In December 1990, the federal government threatened to take away another $1 million, but the city quickly drew up proposals that averted the loss of the money.

* There has been an increase in the number of vacant public housing units. Of approximately 18,000 public housing units, 433 were vacant in 1989 and the figure had jumped to 543 in December 1989, the latest year figures were available.

Included in the total are some 300 vacant single-family rowhouses scattered throughout the city. Many of these homes have been heavily damaged by vandals.

PD Robert W. Hearn serves as the commissioner of the city's Depart

ment of Housing and Community Development and as the executive director of the housing authority, which manages public housing. Hearn's detractors say his performance has been disappointing and Schmoke has drawn criticism for choosing him. Before joining the Schmoke administration, Hearn was associate director of Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies.

Hearn's tenure has been punctuated by the resignations of more than half a dozen high-level housing officials -- four of them deputy housing commissioners. After leaving, some of those officials privately said Schmoke administration officials had frozen them out of the decision-making process.

The Evening Sun interviewed 15 people -- community activists as well as present and former city housing officials -- and all criticized the Schmoke administration for failing to make the most of the scant federal money that's available for housing.

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