Mothballing a troubled high-rise

January 14, 1993

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which manages 18,300 public housing units for the federal government, is in full retreat.

Things at the Lexington Terrace project along the Martin Luther King Boulevard are so out of hand the authority has announced the evacuation of all tenants from one of its five high-rises there. Once empty, that tower will be locked and mothballed until some other use can be devised for it.

Meanwhile, the authority is asking the incoming Clinton administration to approve demolition of five troubled high-rise towers at the Lafayette Courts project, near the Main Post Office. To control crime and vandalism, they would be replaced with more than 500 garden apartments.

These are signs of desperation. They bespeak an agency that has lost control of the public housing units it manages. Its high-rises look like and feel like Sarajevo; its low-rises are becoming so problematic the Housing Authority is now studying alternative ways to manage them.

When Housing Authority chief Robert W. Hearn announced yesterday the gradual closing of one of the Lexington Terrace high-rises, he talked about the societal changes that have altered the nature and condition of America's public housing. (Using Chicago as one of his focal points, Nicholas Lemann splendidly documented these changes in his 1992 book entitled "The Promised Land.")

By itself, Baltimore City cannot cure the underlying causes of the societal malaise that is responsible for the problems of public housing locally and nationwide. But rather than seeking excuses for inaction in federal policies beyond his control, Dr. Hearn certainly can start shaking up the management of the city Housing Authority.

It has long been clear that many of the Baltimore Housing Authority's most obvious problems have little to do with guidelines or attitudes in Washington. Instead, they are rooted in such local practices as inadequate screening of tenants, poor personnel selection and unworkable management routines.

No one envies Dr. Hearn's difficult twin jobs as the Housing Authority chief and the city's housing commissioner. But he ought to stop blaming outside forces for what evidently are in-house management problems. Until those correctable problems are resolved, no amount of change in Washington is going to improve Baltimore's public housing stock or its administration.

Public images are important, particularly now that a new government is going to take over in Washington. The image the city is creating by walking away from a troublesome high-rise at Lexington Terrace is one of helpless abandonment. Mothballing will not take the basic problem away.

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