For the second time in 20 days, public housing officials conducted a sweep of a high-rise building at Flag House Courts yesterday as they continued efforts to restore order to the 487-unit complex plagued by drugs and violence.
The sweep at 127 S. Exeter St. was part of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operation, or ECHO, modeled after successful public housing cleanups in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Yesterday's sweep began at 9 a.m. when officers from the Baltimore and public housing police forces, maintenance and social workers and housing officials -- 350 people in all -- descended on the 12-story building. They evicted trespassers, issued identification cards to tenants, screened people for referral to health and social service programs, made repairs, planted flowers and applied fresh coats of paint.
Residents gawked as broken furniture, window frames, large bags of trash and scraps of metal were carted from the building and dumped into piles at the front and rear exits to be hauled away.
Soon, a tree surgeon was trimming trees that shaded the front of the high-rise and a crew of landscapers had laid sod and planted geraniums. By noon, new gutters had been installed on the exterior of the building and painters had covered graffiti. One worker had the unenviable task of plucking dirty, discarded diapers from the trees surrounding the building.
In all, housing officials said, more than 350 requests for repairs were generated during the sweep, most of which were completed by evening.
"This is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," said Barbara Holland, a 26-year resident of Flag who watched from her window as maintenance workers resodded a lawn in front of her building.
Yesterday's sweep came less than three weeks after a sweep through the Flag high-rise at 107 S. Albemarle St. During that sweep, 680 work orders were handled and new security procedures were implemented.
The Flag development has three high-rise buildings, 133 low-rise units and a total of 487 apartments. Officially, some 1,200 people live in the complex located just north of Little Italy. But squatters and other illegal tenants swelled the population to about 2,000, officials said.
The complex is notorious for violent crime and drug peddling. The third floor of the building swept yesterday by officials was the scene Sept. 18 of the near-fatal shooting of a police officer. And last August, 10 police officers were pinned down by sniper fire from a high-rise building. The officers had to be rescued by an armored personnel carrier borrowed from Prince George's County.
Also, tenants complained that drug dealers controlled the building's stairways, openly brandishing guns while they plied their trade.
There were four arrests during yesterday's sweep, including one of a disabled squatter who was found sleeping in a vacant, sixth-floor apartment. The squatter, who identified himself as Valdeze Diggs, 29, was arrested on an outstanding warrant, police said.
"If you don't live here, you don't belong here. That's our obligation as a landlord -- to enforce the lease," said Daniel P. Henson III, executive director of the Housing Authority.
Mr. Henson and other Housing Authority officials acknowledged that drug dealers are being chased from the Flag development to other parts of the city, including other housing projects. But he said the authority is devising a plan to address that.
Housing Authority officials said the sweep cost taxpayers $200,000.
During the sweep, police removed the steel turnstile -- installed last summer to thwart trespassers -- from the front entrance of the high-rise. Residents had complained about the turnstiles, saying they made the buildings look like jails.
The devices that were installed at all public housing high-rise buildings will be sold to the District of Columbia government, which plans to install them as side exit doors in senior citizen apartment buildings, Mr. Henson said.
Thirty-four of the 50 vacant units at 127 S. Exeter are being renovated by private contractors at a cost ranging from $13,000 to $17,000 per unit, housing officials said.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke walked through a newly renovated eighth-floor apartment at No. 127 yesterday and marveled at its oak kitchen cabinets, tiled bathroom and freshly painted walls.
"We want people to think of this as a neighborhood and the only way to do that is to make upgrades and beautify," Mr. Schmoke said.
As Mr. Schmoke led a tour of a clean and quiet No. 107 yesterday, residents praised ECHO, which they said had promoted a new feeling of respect between tenants and the Housing Authority.
Susan B. Pierce, manager of Flag, said the number of repair requests at No. 107 had declined "dramatically." And for the first time in years, she said, people are asking about moving into the Flag high-rise.
"Before, when people came in they were asking about moving out," she said.