Blind leading the blind

February 02, 1993

The scramble is on at the city's high-rise housing projects. After visits to Lexington Terrace, first by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and then by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, cleaning and fix-up crews are working double-time. Trash is being removed, long-standing problems -- exposed wiring, broken windows and the like -- are at last being addressed.

Not surprisingly, the word has spread throughout the public housing projects that this is a good time to get things done. At Lexington Terrace, one tenant wanted to have her bathtub replaced. It had a big hole in it. "How did this happen?" asked a Housing Authority official. "I was having a fight with my boyfriend," the tenant replied, "and the barbell I threw at him landed in the tub."

Not all of the complaints at Lexington Terrace and other housing projects are self-inflicted or frivolous. But there is a real danger in the current rush to improve things to throw good money after bad. The deplorable conditions at Lexington Terrace were caused by systemic failures. They cannot be corrected with cosmetic repairs.

We wonder whether Mayor Schmoke understands this.

The mayor has appointed an outside troika with scant administrative background and no previous public housing management experience to run the Housing Authority while a replacement is sought for fired Deputy Director Juanita Clark Harris. It will take a miracle for lawyer Edward Hitchcock and the two other mayoral trouble shooters, Danise Jones-Dorsey and Emmanuel Price, to succeed in what is one of the most complicated and challenging management jobs in any municipal government. With Housing Authority Director Robert W. Hearn still in command, they are like the blind leading the blind.

Until a few years ago, Baltimore City's Housing Authority had a reputation as one of the few big-city public housing providers that worked well. The Schmoke administration should find an answer to the current puzzle: how did the Housing Authority, which only a few years ago was regarded as an efficient, effective provider of public housing, deteriorate in such a short span of time?

Sure, many federal funds were cut. But what else happened? How were previously rigorous regulations and management practices altered?

Instead of asking novices to determine these complicated technical questions, we urge Mayor Schmoke to seek help from private sector experts on subsidized housing, or from such people as retired city housing administrator Van Story Branch. They know the system. They know how it used to work. They know how to make it work again.

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