Public housing, high and low

January 27, 1992

When a mayoral task force concluded more than a year ago that high-rise public housing in Baltimore City was an unhealthy environment for low-income families with children, its suggestion that such families be moved into low-rise complexes seemed only common sense.

The task force cited pervasive security concerns -- from vandalism and vagrancy to drug dealing, assaults and homicide -- as evidence that high-rises are awful places for kids. Last week, the city housing authority took the panel's recommendation a step further when it unveiled plans to demolish five crime-ridden high-rises in East Baltimore's Lafayette Courts complex and replace them with two-story structures.

Yet new evidence suggests that even this solution may not be enough. A recent review of Prince George's County police records shows that violent crime, vandalism and drug activity are endemic to some privately operated county low-rise apartment complexes, especially those with large concentrations of low-income residents.

More than half of 1991's homicides in Prince George's were committed in or near low-rise apartment communities. Most of its largest drug markets are based there. A disproportionate number of area stabbings, sexual assaults and muggings also occur in so-called "garden apartments." The county has one of the region's largest stocks of privately owned low-income housing -- mostly concentrated in 70,000 garden apartment units.

Does this mean that moving poor families from high-rises to garden apartments won't improve the situation? Not necessarily. But there are lessons for Baltimore as it contemplates a major reconstruction of its troubled Lafayette Courts.

Moving families to low-rises is only a first step. Unless the new structures are scrupulously kept up and provided with adequate security, problems will reappear. Baltimore has been relatively fortunate in this regard: City officials say low-rises here have not experienced nearly the same intensity of problems that plague high-rises.

In Prince George's, only about 100 of its 286 private garden apartment communities contributed significantly to the crime problem. Most of them had fallen into various states of disrepair due to poor design and shoddy construction. That mistake is clearly avoidable in Baltimore.

Lessons from successful low-rises around the country should be applied to Baltimore's remaining high-rises. Much of the city's high-rise public housing is plagued by poor construction, lax management and overcrowding similar to troubled suburban low-rises. Yet communities in Chicago and Charleston, S.C., have made great progress in cleaning up formerly notorious high-rise projects through beefed-up building maintenance and resident security measures.

High-rises may never be ideal places for raising children. But there's no law that says they have to be incorrigible magnets for crime.

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