Demolishing the High-Rises

December 28, 1991

In November 1990, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, acting on the recommendation of a blue-ribbon study panel, ordered the Baltimore City Housing Authority to find a way to start moving families out of crime-ridden high-rise apartment buildings. For more than a year, bureaucrats have been trying to devise a strategy to do so. In a few days, the plan will be publicly unwrapped.

The Housing Authority is proposing a pilot program that would demolish five of the six high-rise buildings of Lafayette Courts, at Fayette and Colvin streets, and convert the remaining tower into a modernized facility for senior citizens and handicapped individuals. More than 500 garden apartments would then be built on the ruins of the high-rises.

And how would this be financed?

City officials expect to receive $100 million in federal funds over the next six years to upgrade the existing high-rises. They now want to go to Washington and argue that repairing those old and deteriorating buildings does not make any sense. Instead, the money should be used to construct units more suitable for families with children.

The initial blue-ribbon panel studied four high-rise buildings at the George B. Murphy Homes, five at Lexington Terrace, three at Flag House Courts and six at Lafayette Courts. In each case, it recommended that the towers be converted from family units to adult use only.

Big cities throughout the nation have become increasingly disillusioned about public housing high-rises during the past few years. Some cities have dynamited them; others have boarded them up. But no other city has proposed what the Baltimore Housing Authority is planning to do. Baltimore may have to do some hard selling, with the help of the state's congressional delegation, to make the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agree to its proposal.

Yet this clearly is the way to go. Public housing is a mess nationwide and the federal government should encourage new thinking and experiments. That's what HUD secretary Jack Kemp has been espousing for years now. In some ways, Mr. Kemp has already started to try different approaches. Some public housing projects have been sold to their tenants in recent years. This is an intriguing concept but it is too early to tell how successful it will be in the long-term, especially once tenants have to finance major repairs.

Current HUD rules prohibit the kind of inventive use of repair funds the city Housing Authority is proposing. Those rules also prohibit cities from deleting public housing units without having replacement units in place before doing so. Such bureaucratic barriers can be waived, and have been for other projects. The city should not waste any time filing its plan with HUD and getting the complicated review and approval process started.

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