Handling the High-Rise: City Looks to Get Families Out

September 27, 1992|By MELODY SIMMONS

The image is rivetting and clear: police officers with guns cocked walking through the streets shouting angrily at an unruly crowd. It could be Bosnia, Soweto or Belfast, where civil wars have shredded the fabric of civilization.

But this chilling scene hits closer to home.

It occurred last weekend in West Baltimore at the public housing project known as George B. Murphy Homes during bloody September on the streets of Baltimore.

In a three-day span, the local high-rise projects once again played host to violent crime.

On Sept. 18, city police Officer James E. Young Jr. was ambushed on the third floor of the Flag House project near Little Italy and shot in the back of the head, a horror followed by the fatal shooting of officer Ira Weiner at a residence on West Mulberry Street. With tension at a fevered pitch, police officers last Sunday responded en masse to a call at Murphy Homes, where they were greeted by jeers from the public housing residents and bystanders. Guns drawn, a shootout started after police said a fleeing suspect pointed a gun at the officers.

While these incidents were highly publicized, a multitude of crimes take place daily -- even hourly -- in the city's 18 high-rise public housing towers and often go unreported by the media.

The buildings are pockmarked by trash, urine-stained hallways and dark elevators that rarely work. They have become a breeding ground for murder, violence and drug peddling that have destroyed any spirit of community intended in the master plan when Lafayette Courts opened in 1955 as the first local project.

Many of the local public high-rise housing units are occupied by single mothers who have at least two children and live on an average of $6,000 each year. Others, mostly vacant and vandalized units, are inhabited by drug dealers who are armed with semi-automatic pistols, Uzis and rifles.

Murphy Homes resident Victoria Bogier, a 23-year-old single mother of three, recently described how she and her 7-year-old daughter had to step over a bullet-riddled body one morning in the stairwell of the high-rise while walking to school. Another resident complained that the street near the 1058 building at Murphy Homes becomes a bustling open-air drug market each month after welfare checks are cashed.

"Would you live in a high-rise?" asks Vincent Quayle, director of the non-profit St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. "I would do anything to get out. The high-rises should not have been built in the first place. They were built to put the poor in so we can control them. Here, I think we should clear them out and rent them to the yuppies from Owings Mills who want to live near the Inner Harbor."

The high-rise crime problem has become so serious that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke endorsed a proposal to tear down the high-rise towers and replace them with low-rise dwelling units. The recommendation first came from a 1990 task force report, which concluded that the dangerous living conditions in the projects make them unsafe for children, who occupy many of the 18,000 '' public housing units in the city. A second task force studied how to do it and released its study this past January. In all, about 2,000 families live in the 18 high-rises in four city housing projects.

Federal funds intended for renovation of the blighted buildings -- city officials say they could get as much as $100 million over 10 years -- would be diverted to build new units that are designed to create a community atmosphere.

Some high-rises would be retained and converted into housing for the elderly and disabled. Overall, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City would create a "social infrastructure to give people the tools" for tenant ownership and educational opportunities, according to authority Executive Director Robert W. Hearn.

"What this is about is really creating a community," Mr. Hearn said. "It would be a partnership with the residents and it is important to do that. They are potentially tremendous payoffs."

The high-rise elimination plan would start at Lafayette Courts, an 18-acre site that holds six towers overlooking the main Post Office on Fayette Street. Five of the six buildings would be demolished, and one would be converted to elderly residences. The high-rises would be replaced by 262 row house units, and the project's existing 162 low rise units would be modernized.

Despite the new construction, housing authority officials would have to build or purchase 252 additional dwelling units in the city to house the Lafayette Courts tenants whose units would be wiped out under the plan. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations require that none of the project's 2,272 residents be displaced.

The total cost for Lafayette Courts alone is estimated to be $58.5 million, including $6 million to demolish the high-rises. The ambitious plan for Lafayette Courts would take seven years to complete, and residents would have to be relocated at taxpayers' expense during the construction.

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