Modest solution for problems of the high-rises

DAN RODRICKS

January 14, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Is this remarkable, or what? Robert W. Hearn, Baltimore's housing commissioner, says the city's high-rise housing projects have an "image problem." That's like saying Saddam Hussein could become something of a public nuisance.

Such an absurdly tardy understatement begs the question: Where has this guy been?

The high-rise projects have had problems for years. In fact, there is a vast college of sociologists, public health officials and city planners who believe the segregation of America's urban poor into these concrete canyons was a bad idea from the start. The high-rise design produced the aesthetics of prison tiers. They should have been torn down.

The projects have been deteriorating for decades because there has been no public will to adequately maintain them. They were officially neglected by a government that, having made an initial attempt at public housing, offered no substantive follow-up to provide decent, safe transitional housing for the episodically poor and long-term housing for the chronically poor, many of whom are elderly.

Don't blame the city. It was the federal government that backed out of its commitment.

Maybe the original dreamers believed the projects would be needed only for a generation or so because, of course, after World War II that was all the time we supposedly needed to eradicate poverty and renew the cities.

In fact, three and four generations of poor Americans -- many of them working poor -- have lived in -- and somehow survive -- the projects.

Now, as bad as things are, as difficult as it is for them to find decent rental housing elsewhere, as high as the risk of homelessness is to them, more and more people are rejecting the projects as a place to live.

Veronica Anderson was one. I met her a few years ago. She grew up in Flag House Courts, but was determined not to raise her son there, and she worked hard toward that goal.

She took classes at night to complete her high school education. She got a job. She worked tirelessly with her son to make sure he did well in school.

Their two-bedroom apartment was small and overheated. Water, or something, dripped along a drain pipe and fell into the bathroom. You stepped outside the door onto a concrete slab, an exterior hallway bordered by sagging chain-link fence. The elevator smelled of urine and marijuana. Men and teen-agers lingered in the hallways, the lobby and courtyard day and night, and Veronica hid her fear of these men from her son. She escorted him everywhere. She kept him inside the apartment. The boy had no place to play. The recreation center had been closed.

As soon as she had the means, Veronica rented a rowhouse in West Baltimore.

It's a marvelous story, truly a testimonial to America's public housing projects: The worse they are, the faster people leave them.

Now they are so bad, people don't want to live in them at all. Imagine that.

One in five apartments in Baltimore's high-rise projects is vacant, and few families are willing to move into them. And yet, the Housing Authority says there are 26,000 families waiting for housing.

What do we do? The federal government starts another "war": We recruit an army of men and women to create decent housing for the neediest Americans. We tear down the old high-rise projects. In certain cities, including Baltimore, some of the projects sit on prime real estate. Clear it and sell it to developers.

Where do we put people living in the projects now as well as those waiting for an opening?

Rehabilitate vacant rowhouses, situated throughout the city, and turn renters into homeowners. There are more than 27,000 vacant houses in Baltimore. A lot of that stock is already unsalvageable.

So, for starters, we target the vacant houses owned by the city -- there are 6,000 of them -- with loans to small developers and individuals who want to become homeowners. The city already has one such program with a fund of $8 million. It needs to be expanded. We set up deals with small contractors to train the unemployed while they renovate the properties. Some of the people who work on the houses could qualify to rent them with an option to buy. The federal government used to have a project like this. It worked. It can work again.

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