He came, saw, offered to help Cisneros visits Lexington Terrace

February 04, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros made an unannounced visit to one of Baltimore's worst public housing projects yesterday and ordered immediate federal assistance to restore its blighted high-rises.

On his first trip to a U.S. city since taking over the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mr. Cisneros arrived at Lexington Terrace in West Baltimore after walking through the rejuvenated Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

His mood turned somber as he dodged puddles of water in the leaky, trashy stairwells of a high-rise at 734 W. Fayette St. and walked through hallways reeking of urine. He saw bullet holes in a hallway and winced inside a vacant apartment that had been vandalized and stripped by thieves.

"Let's give some attention to the mayor's needs here, whatever [federal] program comes to bear," Mr. Cisneros said to Michael Janis, HUD's acting assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, after leaving the building.

"Immediate things need to be done here."

Mr. Janis said he will meet this week with Robert W. Hearn, executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, to discuss options for improving Lexington Terrace -- such as relaxing federal regulations to institute a program to hire tenants to patrol and clean the high-rises, and "freeing up some money" for emergency maintenance.

"We could use existing money in a different way or look at the regulations -- it depends on what the local community needs to do," Mr. Janis said. "We have to do something on an emergency basis. Something has to be done here."

Mr. Cisneros' concern was welcome news to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who, like Mr. Hearn, blames the budget cuts and stringent federal regulations of the Reagan and Bush administrations for the declining conditions at Lexington Terrace and Baltimore's four other public high-rise developments.

"The fact that you said you'll work with us is welcome news," Mr. Schmoke said in response to the secretary's pledge of immediate federal assistance.

"Keep me posted. I want to know," Mr. Cisneros replied.

"This is a problem of maintenance," Mr. Janis said of the Lexington Terrace blight. "These things have to be fixed, and the people -- the Housing Authority -- is responsible."

Mr. Janis would not comment on the Housing Authority's use of (( $1.4 million in federal housing funds last summer to pay each of its employees a salary addition of $1,000 -- money that could have gone toward repairs in the projects.

The blighted conditions at Lexington Terrace have been a pressing concern for Mr. Schmoke and other city officials since angry tenants petitioned the politicians a month ago to make jTC repairs and clean up the project, which is infested with drugs, crime and grime.

Residents also complained that their maintenance requests went unanswered by the Housing Authority for months.

With a vacancy rate of 25 percent -- higher than the city's high-rise rate of 18 percent -- Lexington Terrace has many empty units that vandals have damaged.

Last month, in visits several days apart, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke spent the night at Lexington Terrace and Mayor Schmoke had a night-time, eight-hour tour of the complex -- both at the invitation of tenants who wanted them to "wake up the same way we do."

Yesterday's tour of Lexington Terrace capped the HUD secretary's day in Baltimore.

Earlier, during a news conference at Gilmor Elementary School, Mr. Cisneros -- the former mayor of San Antonio -- pledged new efforts to move HUD to the "front lines" of the nation's cities and combat homelessness, crime and unemployment.

"I want to try to transform the attitude of HUD from that of an obstacle to a partner," Mr. Cisneros said.

"We have been too frequently driven by regulations and 'gotcha,' and we have got to be a facilitator and a partner. It's very critical that this department play that role."

Mr. Cisneros said he would ask President Clinton to provide additional federal funds for new urban housing programs and plans to ask a group of mayors -- including Mr. Schmoke, who is to visit the White House tomorrow -- for revitalization ideas. The secretary also outlined a plan to use surplus military properties and old Veterans Administration hospital facilities as homeless shelters.

"He's a very compassionate man," said the Rev. Damian Nalepa of St. Gregory's Catholic Church, who took part in Mr. Cisneros' walking tour of Sandtown-Winchester and watched the news conference.

"As he said, his office will not only be on the 10th floor, but on the streets, and that is a great message."

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