Rent strike begins at Lexington Terrace

February 09, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

Fed up with unsafe and unhealthy living conditions, 67 residents of Lexington Terrace placed their February rents in escrow accounts yesterday, holding back $6,800 from their landlord -- the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

About 370 Lexington Terrace residents, who pay rents that range from $36 to $500 a month, did not participate in the strike.

By their action, the strikers hope to prod management to make long-needed repairs or relocate them from the complex's five high-rises into generally safer low-rise public housing units, said Marla Hollandsworth, a University of Baltimore law professor who directs a group of UB law students who are representing the tenants.

Valerie Talley, a 32-year-old single mother of three, said she placed her $204 monthly rent in escrow because her plumbing constantly leaks, her kitchen ceiling has collapsed and the plaster on her living room wall is chipping.

"It's not sanitary here, for me or my children," said Ms. Talley, who lives in a third-floor apartment in the high-rise at 701 W. Mulberry St. "I've put in several work orders for the walls. I figured that if I didn't pay rent, they'd come and fix my walls."

Ms. Talley also complained that the elevators in the high-rises often break down. Her 2-year-old son is brain damaged and uses a wheelchair. When the elevators don't work, "I have to somehow take him down the steps to wait for the bus so he can go to school," she said.

Momentum for a rent strike began Jan. 21 when 100 residents met with City Council President Mary Pat Clarke at Lexington Terrace Elementary School to complain about blighted conditions in the complex. They told how their pleas for repairs have been ignored by the Housing Authority.

Their complaints drew visits from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, an overnight stay from Mrs. Clarke and a surprise visit last week from Henry G. Cisneros, the new U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, while he was on a trip to Baltimore.

The strike will be the subject of a hearing on Feb. 25 in city rent court, said Ms. Hollandsworth.

The law students working with Ms. Hollandsworth plan to subpoena work orders for repairs from management at Lexington Terrace and determine whether city housing inspectors have made inspections at the high-rises since 1990, Ms. Hollandsworth said.

Ms. Hollandsworth said she plans to file a motion to merge all 67 escrow petitions into one lawsuit. She added that District Judge Mary Ellen Rinehardt has indicated that one judge will be appointed to hear the cases so they don't get bogged down in rent court.

Gwen Tromley, a private attorney hired by the Housing Authority, refused to comment on the rent strike.

The Lexington Terrace development has a vacancy rate of 25 percent -- a situation that has invited vandalism and crime.

Overall, the city's 18 high-rise buildings have an 18 percent vacancy rate, even though a waiting list for public housing has 26,800 applicants. Many potential tenants are rejecting offers to live in the crime-plagued high-rises because the buildings have an "image problem," Housing Authority officials have said.

The Housing Authority has begun relocating residents from the most blighted Lexington Terrace high-rise at 734 W. Fayette St. to low-rise units. Thirty-six tenants who remain at 734 joined the rent strike, Ms. Hollandsworth said.

Maryland law states that petitions for rent escrow can be filed if the rental units threaten tenants' health, life or safety, or if the landlord has been given notice of the conditions and had up to 30 days to repair them.

"It seems to me that these problems say there hasn't been adequate maintenance to repair these [buildings] in years," Ms. Hollandsworth said. "The places are falling apart."

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