Could new housing today become slums tomorrow? City proposal prompts worry about 'ghettoization' of poor

February 09, 1992|By Edward Gunts

When members of Baltimore's Housing Authority met last month to view blueprints for new public housing at Lafayette Courts, they saw comfortable apartments in two-story rowhouses, private fenced yards and secure walkways throughout the community.

But will those new houses become the slums of the 21st century?

Although local housing and planning experts praise the Housing Authority's proposal to tear down five of the six high-rise public housing towers, many also question its plan to replace the towers with two-story housing rather than move residents to sites scattered throughout the community.

To them, the notion of tearing down public housing and then building it again in the same location could be the prescription for another urban disaster, just as the 1950s-era high-rises turned out to be. They say the $58.5 million plan would perpetuate the "ghettoization" of the poor.

"There's a stigma attached to it," said Sidney Brower, a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland. "People talk about 'the projects' and have no way to establish an identity for themselves other than to say they live in the projects. You don't have that to the same extent with scattered-site housing."

Housing Authority officials counter that they were limited in what they could propose because of federal regulations governing the property and because of their own desire not to displace the poor against their will.

They say many residents want to stay in the immediate area and are afraid the city will disperse them and "yuppify" the site.

"We are committed to keeping these families in their community and providing the amenities and support services they deserve," said Housing Authority Director Robert W. Hearn. "We think the way we're going is the appropriate way to use the land."

Begun in 1953, Lafayette Courts contains 816 residences on a 21.5-acre parcel less than a half mile from the Inner Harbor and downtown.

The Housing Authority's plan, which hinges on the uncertain prospect of obtaining federal approval and funding, has three components: tearing down five high-rise buildings and constructing 262 two-story units in their place; fixing the remaining tower to provide 140 residences for the elderly and disabled; and modernizing 162 low-rise dwellings on the site. Another 252 units would be replaced elsewhere through new construction or purchase of existing units.

The plan came as something of a disappointment to members of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the city's largest housing-advocacy organization.

Although they like the idea of moving families out of high-rises, members said at a board meeting Thursday, they are concerned about the authority's decision to concentrate two-thirds of the residents in new housing on the same site.

"We were advocating that they relocate the residents in housing throughout the community, in scattered, clustered sites, so you don't have low-income people in one concentrated area," CPHA Executive Director Hathaway Ferebee said. "We know it's going to be tough, but you ought to go for the big vision.

"Can you find [scattered-site] housing for all of these people?" Ms. Ferebee asked the group. "That's the issue. We think you can. Maybe not all in Baltimore City. Maybe in the Baltimore metropolitan area. That's another issue."

Other cities have successfully combined public housing and market-rate housing in one development, such as the highly successful Tent City mid-rise complex near downtown Boston.

Larry Reich, Baltimore's planning director from 1963 to 1989, said he believes the land could be put to better use than public housing.

Given the city's more than 20 years of investment to refurbish the waterfront and downtown areas, he believes the land in and around Lafayette Courts could be made into another Otterbein, the west-side neighborhood that is close to the Inner Harbor and has a diverse mix of housing.

"It's a very valuable piece of land in terms of the future development of the city," Mr. Reich said of the Lafayette Courts site. "Some provision has to be made to reconstruct public housing. But it makes very little sense to tear down public housing and then keep public housing in that location. It should be considered an extension of the development of the Inner Harbor."

Walter Sondheim, chairman of a citizens group that last year released a comprehensive strategy for guiding downtown development over the next 20 years, said the idea of turning the land over for other uses is nice but unrealistic.

"I would think the city would want to think twice about that -- giving up any site for public housing," Mr. Sondheim said. "Looking for a new site would be extremely difficult. . . . You have to think of the issue as being sure that you have enough land for public housing."

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