Combating high-rise terror

August 27, 1992

For years, Baltimore's Housing Authority has countered criticism of its public housing operation by pointing to such cities as Chicago and Philadelphia, where many high-rise projects are a veritable no-man's land.

True. By statistical comparison with worst cases, Baltimore is not in such bad shape. Only 2.8 percent of the city's 18,300 public housing units are vacant, for example. But now Baltimore, too, is beginning to lose control over its public housing.

Item: Recently, an armored car had to be hauled to rescue police from a high-rise tower after officers became targets of snipers. Meanwhile, a 9-year-old girl on a visit from New York was murdered and her body left in a trash bin. Also, a man was shot to death in a stairwell.

Item: At the 700-unit Lexington Terrace, drug dealers had such a grip on a high-rise building that pushers, armed with shotguns and handguns, stood guard over the entrances and would not let people in unless they were there to buy drugs.

In response to these kinds of situations, city housing police last week swept through 60 vacant apartments in two public housing complexes. The move followed a sweep of 109 vacant units in May, a show of force that at the time was described as "unprecedented." As these sweeps become routine, they underscore the problems of lawlessness, drug-dealing and squatters that are putting decent residents of public housing on the defensive.

As Nicholas Lemann documented in his recent book, "The Promised Land," this is a phenomenon experienced throughout the nation and caused by a multitude of complicated factors. By itself, Baltimore City cannot solve the underlying causes of the societal malaise. But this city can and must make sure it changes management and policing practices so that lawlessness in the high-rise public housing projects is curbed and order is restored.

This can be done only with the help of tenants. Surely tenants know if a vacant unit has been overtaken by drug dealers or squatters. Surely they know who the problem tenants are who harbor criminals and misfits who make a whole housing complex's life intolerable.

After the police sweep in May at Lafayette Courts, housing officials and tenants organized a residents' security patrol. Now, equipped with walkie-talkies, patrol members alert police to problems and suspicious activity. At Claremont Homes, Anna Warren, a tenant activist, has initiated a similar crime-fighting effort.

This is a strategy we urge the Housing Authority to follow. Organizing tenants to combat crime can make public housing -- their homes -- safer places to live.

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