Months later, families still in high-crime high-rises Status of Schmoke's city housing plan is uncertain.

December 16, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

In November 1990, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ordered the city's housing authority to devise a plan for moving families out of its crime-ridden high-rise apartment buildings to less densely populated low-rise housing.

Now, more than a year later, there is no plan and there are differing accounts about the effort to produce one.

Two members of a public housing committee say the plan is at a standstill. But Schmoke, and Juanita Harris, who runs the day-to-day operations of the housing authority, say the committee is close to finishing the plan.

"I thought it would take longer [than a year]," said Schmoke, who is unconcerned about the length of time that has passed since he issued the order.

Meanwhile, there seems to be unanimous agreement on two things: No alternative public housing is available to relocate the high-rise residents -- and no federal money is available to increase the city's public housing inventory.

Schmoke's order followed a task force's recommendation that called for relocating 2,000 high-rise residents -- mostly women and children -- from 18 apartment buildings to two low-rise complexes where the units are less than three stories tall.

In addition, the task force, which was formed in February 1990, recommended that the city use the high-rises for adults without children, including the handicapped and the elderly.

Housing authority officials say young people who deal drugs and congregate in the high-rises are responsible for much of the crime there. The drug dealers would not be drawn to high-rises populated by the elderly and the handicapped, the officials say.

Last May, Harris, the housing authority's deputy executive director, appointed a second committee -- composed of several public housing officials and two tenants -- to come up with a plan for moving the families out of the high-rises and converting them to safer housing.

Harris said she told the task force to report back to her in four to six weeks so she could come up with a final plan. About seven months have passed, and the two tenants say the committee has been unable to come up with a workable plan.

Paul B. Briscoe, who lives in Lakeview Tower -- a senior citizen high-rise -- said the committee "shot down" the recommendations from the original task force because "there is no alternative housing for families to move to."

Briscoe also said the committee is uncertain whether new tenants can be found for the high-rises. "We don't know if we have a market for single people to take over these high rises," he said.

At one point, he said, an architect came up with designs for reusing the buildings, but the new designs still had "too many areas left where drug dealing could go on."

"Some say we should demolish and replace them with low-rise buildings, some say we should renovate them," he added.

Rachel Bishop, another member of the committee, said the group "can't get off the ground to find replacement housing" for families.

"It's at a standstill. We talk about what to do and then say we can't do this, we can't do that," said Bishop, who lives in Murphy Homes -- a high-rise family complex that has been plagued by drug-related violence.

Asked why the committee has been unable to devise a plan in seven months, Harris said: "These things take a long time. We are tackling ground no one has tackled before and it has taken some time to do that."

Harris said she expects the plan to be completed by the end of this month. After it's finished, it will be submitted to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD approval is necessary to get the federal money necessary to implement the plan.

The plan faces an uncertain future if and when HUD receives it. The federal government stopped funding new public housing more than a decade ago under the Reagan administration. This means that the city cannot increase its inventories of public housing.

Harris said the committee is also waiting for architects to come up with plans to renovate the high-rises into shorter structures. The shorter structures would be less densely populated with fewer stairwells and other areas that might provide havens for drug dealers.

Harris conceded that housing officials have been unable to find alternative housing for the families that would be moved out of the high-rises. "That's the question," she said.

The original task force was formed in February 1990 and met for nine months. It included a former city housing commissioner, a former manager of the local office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the former chairman of Baltimore's housing authority commission, a city councilwoman, a state delegate and public housing tenant leaders.

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