Tenants to withhold rent at 2 high-rises

January 22, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

The tenants' council and residents of two high-rises at the Lexington Terrace public housing complex voted to withhold their rents from the city Housing Authority beginning Feb. 1 to protest unsafe and unsanitary living conditions.

The residents also invited City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Housing Authority Executive Director Robert W. Hearn to spend a night in the crime-plagued and rat-infested West Baltimore development and "wake up the same way we do."

Ms. Clarke, who attended the boisterous meeting of about 100 tenants yesterday at Lexington Terrace Elementary School, immediately accepted the invitation, telling the residents she would be happy to "walk in their shoes."

But Mrs. Clarke, who did not specify a date for her stay, cautioned residents to meet with Mr. Schmoke before they embark on a rent strike.

In the rent strike, tenants will place their rental payments, which range from $36 to $500 per month, into an escrow account until their grievances are addressed by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said Lorraine Ledbetter, president of the Lexington-Poe Tenants' Council.

Most residents at yesterday's meeting said they strongly favor the strike.

They said they are disgusted with poor maintenance, rat infestation and armed drug dealers taking over the building lobbies at Lexington Terrace.

"I have to strike. I can't take it no more," said Carol Wilson, 37, who has lived in a blighted apartment at 770 W. Fayette St. for seven years and pays $84 per month in rent.

Ms. Ledbetter said she hopes that the strike will spread to all of the 18 high-rise buildings in the city's public housing projects.

"We need a massive strike in all of the developments," she said, as the tenants cheered. "If we're going to fight this thing, we have to stick together. We need to march on City Hall. We have our signs ready. We haven't begun to fight."

Barbara McKinney, who extended the invitation to Mrs. Clarke to "wake up the same way we do," got a standing ovation from residents.

"She needs to hear the pipes clanging all night long. She needs to feel the heat when it's up too high. She needs to feel what it's like not to have hot water for three days and to come out and hear the gunfire," Ms. McKinney said.

"My kids have to sleep with me because the walls in their bedroom sweat with water. It's sickening," said Desiree Hilton, 21, who pays $79 in monthly rent for a two-bedroom unit.

"Rats are in my walls and one wall is caving in," she said. "It is a big possibility that rats can come through that wall and bite my children or me. I want something done!"

"My faucet in the bathtub is washed out and my water runs full force all the time," said JoAnn Sye, a former homeless mother who pays $157 for a two-bedroom unit at Lexington Terrace. "I leave for work at 6 a.m. and the steps and hallways are dark. I'm scared."

In accepting the invitation, Ms. Clarke said, "I think the people in this development have a right for us to know first-hand what they go through."

Her stay at Lexington Terrace would mimic former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, who moved into an apartment in a crime-infested public housing high-rise on March 31, 1981, and stayed for three weeks.

For some time, the 438 families in the five high-rises at Lexington Terrace have complained to the housing authority about poor maintenance, vacancies, vandalism and crime. The high-rises at Lexington Terrace have a 25 percent vacancy rate. Drug-users congregate in the vacant apartments, some of which have been vandalized and stripped of their windows and plumbing.

Overall, there is an 18 percent vacancy rate in the city's public housing high-rises, even though there's a waiting list of some 26,800 families. Potential tenants turn down offers to live in the high-rises, Mr. Hearn said, because of their "image problem."

Earlier this month, Mr. Hearn released a plan to close a rundown high-rise at Lexington Terrace and move its 69 families across the complex to another blighted high-rise. The plan was met by strong opposition from residents who complained that their advice was not sought.

On Monday, Mr. Hearn shook up the top administration of the Housing Authority, firing deputy executive director Juanita Harris and transferring James Martin, director of the division of public housing.

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