Public housing once sheltered our tomorrows

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 25, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Tuesday, the morning after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced he would clean out the wreckage of his demoralized housing department, I went to Abbott Court in the Latrobe Projects to wonder why everything's gone to hell.

The mayor's big announcement came with remarkable speed, as these things go at City Hall. All it took was the threat of a rent strike at Lexington Terrace over revolting living conditions, and the news that $42 million in federal grants had somehow been overlooked by his housing people, and the sudden realization of an 18 percent vacancy rate in the city's high-rise public housing buildings at a time when there are somehow more than 15,000 families on waiting lists.

I went to Abbott Court, one of the oldest public housing complexes in town, because I used to live there.

I do not romanticize those days. I was an elementary school kid those four years, my father was going to school on the GI Bill after the war, and we saw the projects as a difficult but temporary home.

Things change. Nobody talked of a permanent underclass then. The neighborhood was never luxurious, but you didn't walk outside your apartment and want to tear everything down and start all over.

As a matter of fact, that's what they did five years ago -- though not so you'd notice today. In 1988, about $13 million went into rebuilding the 700 Latrobe units. Today, here's a quick snapshot:

There are 32 apartments in Abbott Court, each with a separate entrance. On Tuesday, the metal screen doors on 13 of them were either completely missing or had their tops or bottoms ripped out.

"Where'd all the doors go?"

"Cheap screen doors," shrugged a man sticking his head out of a second-floor window.

In front of one apartment, there were huge piles of trash, and various living things circulating around them. Graffiti were scrawled on walls. Across the street, the Urban Bible Fellowship Church sat inside a fence with barbed wire running along its top, as if protecting God from His own surroundings.

Yesterday, Zach Germroth, of the city's Housing Authority, said this: "On the whole, Latrobe is one of our best housing units."

Oh. You think the housing department's blushing over $42 million missing in action? How about a few minor problems, like everywhere you looked Tuesday morning in the Latrobe Projects, with the temperature in the 30s and ice all over the place, there were windows flung wide open?

"Damn right," said one resident, walking you through his living room. "Don't you know why?"

Now that he mentioned it, yeah: The heat was unbearable.

"Gotta be a hundred degrees," this man said.

"At least," said his wife, who sat in the kitchen with their 2-month old son, who napped on a table with nothing over his little chest.

Their complaint is echoed around the court: Heat is set by the Housing Authority itself, they tell you. Residents have no control over it. But Germroth, at Housing, says otherwise: It's a common myth, he says, that if residents lower the heat, they can never get it to go back up again.

Result? The Latrobe heating bill for January, paid by the city, was $49,940.

Is this the Housing Authority's fault? Yes, and no. Blame them for faulty communication, but wonder about impoverished people grown accustomed to assuming living conditions are beyond their control.

Blame Housing for trash mounting horrifyingly in their projects, but who threw the trash there in the first place?

"Tell them about me, will you?"

This is Kenneth Barnes talking. He lives at 1103 Abbott Court, just off Stirling Street, which is the apartment where I once lived. DTC He's got a wife and four children, a Hagerstown Community College diploma displayed in his living room, and an 18-month record of being unemployed.

He says he works construction, says he's looked everywhere. Says he's running out of hope. That's another mark of the housing projects my family never sensed long ago: hope all gone, frustration mounting, and people sometimes expressing it by kicking in a screen door, throwing trash around, putting a needle in an arm and making many people live in conditions created by a few.

And now the city will bring in a new housing commissioner, expected to change all of this, and we wish this person tremendous luck.

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