Many shun high-rise vacancies Families repelled by vandalism, crime BALTIMORE CITY

January 13, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

Nearly one in five of the apartments in Baltimore's four high-rise public housing complexes is vacant at a time when more than 26,000 families are on the city Housing Authority's waiting list for public housing.

Housing Authority officials and housing advocates do not agree on the reasons for the high vacancy rate. Housing Authority officials say potential tenants are afraid to live in the high-rises because the complexes are drug- and crime-infested. Housing advocates say the buildings are poorly managed and maintained.

Robert W. Hearn, the Housing Authority's executive director, last week conceded that the high-rises have an "image problem" that makes them undesirable to potential tenants.

From May 1991 to November 1992, high-rise apartments were offered to 1,609 applicants on the waiting list and 54 percent of the applicants rejected the units citing the crime problem, housing officials say.

Mr. Hearn sees a solution to the problem -- demolishing most of the 18 high-rise apartment buildings and replacing them with low-rise housing.

But one housing advocate says the Housing Authority has deliberately neglected the high-rises, a move that amounts to "de facto demolition" of the buildings.

"The authority has stopped repairing the high-rises," says Barbara Samuels, a housing attorney for Legal Aid Inc. who works with public-housing applicants and the homeless.

"It is a conscious decision by them to cut back on repairs. They are obviously letting them fall apart. It's what we call de facto demolition -- letting it fall apart until demolition becomes a foregone conclusion."

Many of the units have been heavily damaged by vandals, squatters and thieves. In many of the units, appliances, plumbing and aluminum window frames have been stolen.

The Housing Authority estimates that it could cost as much as $30,000 per unit to repair the damage.

Of the 2,183 units in the 18 high-rises, 393 are vacant. Residents of Lexington Terrace, a West Baltimore complex, recently asked Mr. Hearn to tour that development, which has a 25 percent vacancy rate.

Many of the vacant units have been heavily damaged.

At George P. Murphy Homes, adjacent to Lexington Terrace, 25 vacant apartments are ready to be rented.

But Mr. Toohey said that after making offers to the top 300 applicants on the waiting list, the agency has not been able to find a single tenant willing to live one of those 25 apartments.

As a result, the Housing Authority has halted renovation work on 20 other vacant units at Murphy Homes.

There are 129 vacant units at Lafayette Courts and 77 unoccupied units at Flag House Courts in East Baltimore. At Lafayette Courts, 12 of those units are ready for rental while one unit at Flag House Courts is available -- but no tenants are willing to move in, Mr. Toohey says.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-City, says lax management of the high-rises may be one of the causes of the vacancy problem. He also is concerned about the increasing vacancy rate in all of the Housing Authority's 18,300 units, which include low-rises as well as high-rises.

In 1987, 1.5 percent of the 18,300 units were vacant, but the figure had climbed to 5.3 percent by last year, according to Housing Authority figures.

"A vacancy problem is the first sign of a problem in public housing," Mr. Rosenberg says. "Overall, it's a multifaceted problem. You need a lot of resources and imagination to bear and try to resolve it. You need rigorous management to stay on top of the vacancies when they occur. I'm hearing from lots of people that management of the high-rises is not what it had been."

Last month, Mr. Rosenberg asked U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes to work with Mr. Hearn to solve the vacancy problem. The Housing Authority responded by holding a Dec. 31, 1992, meeting with the senators' representatives and local housing advocates, Mr. Rosenberg said.

After viewing the devastation at Lexington Terrace last week, Mr. Hearn promised to unveil an "action plan" by today. Mr. Hearn said he was searching for federal funds in the authority's budget to repair the vandalized units.

Earlier this week, Ms. Samuels said the vacant units are vulnerable to vandalism because the Housing Authority has an inadequate maintenance staff that cannot move quickly enough to secure them.

Lorraine Ledbetter, who heads Lexington Terrace's tenant council, agreed.

"They are not being renovated properly," Ms. Ledbetter said. "They don't fix them up, and they say, 'Them blacks live up there. Let's leave it like that.' They're getting on my nerves. It's not right."

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