Repairs badly needed while housing's purse bulges

July 06, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

By now hundreds of vacant buildings would be renovated and vandalized playgrounds rebuilt, if only Baltimore's housing agency had done what government usually does best -- spend tax dollars.

While public officials everywhere have struggled to make ends meet in a recession, Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development has sat on tens of millions of dollars set aside to revive the city's ailing communities.

The city now has $51 million in unspent city and federal dollars -- money to rehabilitate decrepit homes and buildings, rebuild antiquated playgrounds, pave roads, subsidize mortgages, relocate businesses, aid neighborhood programs and replace 40 public housing units.

A hefty chunk of that cash -- $16 million -- is the city's own money, accumulated from taxes and bonds. Another $35 million is federal housing money. The money has gone unspent from one to five years, city records show.

News of the unspent federal funds -- called Community Development Block Grant money -- was first reported by The Sun in February after federal officials ordered the city to spend the money faster.

The money accumulated while Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his now-deposed Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn blamed federal red tape and cutbacks for their difficulties rejuvenating city neighborhoods.

But a review by The Sun of the untapped funds suggests the main problem is that staff cuts made to save money during the city's current fiscal crisis left the agency with cash to spend, but fewer housing officials with the knowledge and experience to spend it.

The housing department -- nationally known in the 1970s and early 1980s for its creative use of federal money -- has lost 136 employees in the last three years, with a staff dropping from 504 to 368.

A smaller staff for buying houses has slowed the process of renovating vacant homes, for example, while the layoff of a landscape architect left playground money unspent because the city had no one left to draw plans.

In March, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke removed Mr. Hearn and replaced him with developer Daniel P. Henson III.

Since Mr. Henson's appointment, the housing agency has been spending some of the backlogged funds more quickly.

Mr. Henson said he is reviewing all the unfinished projects to see if they can move ahead quickly. Otherwise, the money may be transferred to new projects.

"To the extent that a project can't go through in the next six to nine months, we're going to take the money and reallocate it," he said.

Mr. Henson rejects the notion that the housing agency -- under his predecessor -- failed to move quickly enough to spend the money. In his view, the money is not "unspent" because it is dedicated for specific projects.

"As far as I'm concerned the money's spent. I haven't written the check yet, but the money's spent," he said.

Mr. Henson also noted that not all the problems involve government. In some projects, he explained, federal money is supposed to be used in joint ventures with private firms, few of which have been willing to get involved because of the recession.

He and other housing officials declined to answer specific questions about most of the unspent money, and would not provide an updated accounting of the status of unspent federal funds.

But documents obtained by The Sun account for the $16 million in unspent city money. They show that about $9 million is slated for paving, construction loans and unspecified "public improvements." Another $7 million is earmarked for neighborhood grants, new playgrounds and to buy, demolish, or rehabilitate vacant properties and to relocate tenants and businesses.

Mr. Henson's predecessor, Mr. Hearn, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mayor Schmoke also declined an interview, although in a written response to a request for an interview he said, "I feel very strongly that [Mr. Henson] is working hard to resolve any outstanding problems regarding the expenditure of block grant funds."

Downhill slide

Had the city spent the money faster, many Baltimore neighborhoods might not look so ragged today, with vacant houses and trashed lots dotting the inner city like weeds.

The city, for example, has had $13 million in city and federal funds set aside to buy, renovate or demolish more than 600 properties, most vacant and crumbling.

As the money has accumulated, the number of vacant buildings has steadily grown to 6,974 -- from 5,703 in 1986.

The cost of the delay is perhaps most evident in South Baltimore's Sharp-Leadenhall, where vacant houses in the 100 blocks of W. Cross and W. Hamburg streets are the last scars of a rejuvenated community that sits in the shadow of Baltimore's gleaming new baseball stadium.

Four years ago, the city set aside $640,000 in federal money to buy and renovate 20 dilapidated rowhouses in that neighborhood. Another $200,000 of city money was set aside a year ago for new sidewalks, curbs and trees.

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