Work crews follow on the heels of mayor's visit to public housing

January 31, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

City work crews fanned out across two public housing high-rise complexes yesterday, cleaning courtyards, playgrounds and vacant apartments on the heels of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's late night visit to the Lexington Terrace housing project.

More than 40 workers converged on the Lexington Terrace and the Lafayette Courts developments to begin a cleanup that Mr. Schmoke called "just a start" toward improving living conditions in the city's five high-rise public housing complexes.

Housing officials said similar cleanups will take place next weekend at the Flag House Court and Murphy Homes housing projects.

"We are hoping to begin a process of community renewal," Mr. Schmoke said. "But even if we were able to fix each one of the apartments, and that's all we did, we would be back here next year with the same problem."

Tenants seemed happy to see the mayor and the cleanup crews that followed his visit, although while talking about problems at the complex, at least one tenant took him to task politically, too.

"Sometimes when I come back to my apartment, there is water up to my ankles," Darlene Terry, a mother of four, told Mr. Schmoke. "My mayor is out there in Arkansas, supporting Bill Clinton. Why won't he help me? My children aren't even safe in a place they call home."

The mayor's visit followed by one week Council President Mary Pat Clarke's overnight stay at Lexington Terrace, where tenants have threatened a rent strike because of poor maintenance and unsafe conditions.

"If it takes the mayor and Mary Pat Clarke and the housing commissioner to come here for them to clean things up, then by all means let them come and let this place be cleaned up," said Barbara McKinney, who lives with her children in a tastefully furnished apartment at 755 Lexington St.

To give tenants a role in the operation of the complex, the mayor said he would like to see the Housing Authority reactivate a program that gave tenants monthly $60-rent rebates in return for helping to clean buildings' common areas. Mr. Schmoke said the program had been stopped following concerns raised by the Internal Revenue Service.

He also agreed with tenant complaints about the security turnstiles erected by the Housing Authority at the front entrance of each high-rise building. The devices cost $370,000.

"I have serious reservations about them," Mr. Schmoke said. "There has to be a better way to improve security without having a turnstile that looks like you're going into a prison."

The mayor added that lasting improvement will not take hold at the high-rises until the Housing Authority is able to include tenants in the operation of the projects.

"We've got to get our tenants motivated to work with us," Mr. Schmoke said.

The type of tenant cooperation Mr. Schmoke wants is evident in the building at 755 Lexington Street.

The stairwells there had been painted by tenants in May. They remain free of graffiti, in stark contrast to the scarred hallways and stairwells of others at Lexington Terrace buildings. Tenants also say they have fewer problems with drugs and crime than residents do in other buildings in the complex.

"The drug dealers here call me Dick Tracy," joked Ms. McKinney, a tenant leader who organized the paint project. "We don't stand for that here. In this building, we try to maintain a family atmosphere."

As the mayor witnessed during his eight-hour tour of the 667-unit Lexington Terrace Friday night and early yesterday morning, the Housing Authority apparently has done little to inspire that kind of cooperation elsewhere.

Tenant after tenant complained about vacant apartments that tTC are used as makeshift play areas by children and shooting galleries and crack houses by drug users. They complained about brazen drug dealers who sometimes patrolled the buildings' bleak corridors with their guns drawn.

Mainly, though, they complained about a Housing Authority that did little to respond to complaints or otherwise support tenants trying to fashion homes in the midst of the chaos that often rules at the high-rises.

Paulette Scott has her high school prom pictures and her children's perfect attendance certificates lining her apartment's living-room wall.

But there is also peeling paint and regularly there are floods that make keeping a clean apartment nearly an impossible chore.

"I don't understand why they don't get on these problems as soon as they occur," Ms. Scott said.

Neither Mr. Schmoke nor Housing Authority Executive Director Robert W. Hearn could provide a satisfactory answer.

Robin Rollins moved into Lexington Terrace 13 months ago, and she told the mayor that the Housing Authority has ignored her complaints about a gas leak for all of that time.

Pointing to Mr. Hearn, the mayor said: "This is your housing commissioner. Look him in the face. Look him in the eye."

The gas leak notwithstanding, Ms. Rollins said she has experienced worse living conditions.

She spent 16 years on the public housing waiting list, paying as much as $250 a month to live in "slum properties." Once, she and her children lived in a fire-damaged home with no utilities.

Ms. Rollins' rent at Lexington Terrace is $71 a month. Immediately before moving there, home for her and her children was a North Avenue homeless shelter. And there was no hint of sarcasm when she said, "It really hasn't been too bad here. Just the drugs, trash fires and broken elevators."

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