Baltimore's high-rise hell

May 12, 1993

TC In a three-part series that ended yesterday, staff write Michael A. Fletcher gave readers an unusually penetrating look into the world of public housing high-rises.

Granted, his report focused only on one of the projects, the Flag House Courts near East Lombard Street's Corned Beef Row. But what is true about that complex of three towers, constructed in 1955, is true about many other high-rise complexes. Once hailed as a way to effectively remedy housing shortages until more permanent solutions were invented, high-rises have become so riddled with crime, grime and decay that some American cities have blown them up in sheer desperation.

"It's a terrible way to house young people in particular," says Daniel Henson, the city's new housing commissioner. "In addition to causing problems in raising young people, [dense high-rise living] causes trauma on those buildings."

This also was the conclusion of a task force which studied the future of all 18 of the city's public housing towers more than three years ago. In its final report, the panel recommended that the city convert the high-rises at Murphy Homes, Lexington Terrace, Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts into adults-only buildings. Families with children should be housed only in low-rise structures, the task force said.

This plan has gone through several revisions. Its latest version, to be submitted to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development later this month, asks for money to demolish four of the Lafayette Courts towers, near the main post office. They would then be replaced with garden apartments more suitable for rearing small children. The fifth tower would be converted into a senior citizen complex.

We have long supported this concept. Instead of trying to reconstruct the unworkable high-rises, HUD should channel modernization funds into building units that would have a better chance at succeeding.

The Flag House series shows, however, that deteriorated physical conditions are only one of the problems in public housing. Many other problems -- from poor sanitation to ever-present drugs -- exist because they are tolerated by tenants. As the city presents the Lafayette Courts conversion plan in Washington, we urge the city to plead with HUD for stepped-up disciplinary powers as well.

The city must be given a quick method of evicting tenants who trash their apartments or harbor drug dealers or prostitutes. They ought to be disqualified from further public housing occupancy. Decent people in need should not suffer because of social misfits.

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