Privatizing public housing

October 14, 1993

The essence of the remarkable $293.6 million joint effort sketched by federal, state and city authorities to replace most Baltimore City high-rise projects is to privatize part of that chronically troubled sector of public housing.

If this plan is funded, Baltimore would become the testing site of a bold national experiment.

Families would be removed from concentrated pockets of poverty in high-rises at the Flag House, Lafayette, Lexington and Murphy Homes projects and scattered through much of the metropolitan area to privately-managed rental properties. That way, the thinking goes, they would be closer to work sites and have a better chance to end reliance on public handouts and find gainful employment, particularly since job training programs would be part of the initiative.

This plan would not end public housing projects in Baltimore City.

But 1,116 dwelling units from the current supply of 18,000 units of public housing would be relocated and privatized to decrease population density at the sites of currently crime-plagued high-rise towers. (An additional 1,650 units would be upgraded at those sites).

For years, it has been self-evident that the monstrous high-rise complexes built for low-income families in major American cities since World War II do not work. Tenants themselves have said so by refusing to move to such buildings, many of which stand empty in Baltimore and other cities. Until now, however, the rules and regulations of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development have been so inflexible that even experimentation with alternative strategies has been well-nigh impossible.

It is to the credit of Henry Cisneros, the Clinton administration's HUD secretary, that he appears to be open to innovative solutions. And it is to the credit of the state and city housing officials that they have come up with a solid proposal for an imaginative financing plan to provide replacement housing for public housing tenants in units that would be privately constructed and managed.

Even though federal, state and city officials appear to have agreed on the concept, no money has changed hands yet. But since the scheme would be funded over seven years and would use a patch work of financing sources, it seems doable as long as the will to get things done is present. That seems to be the case.

Privatizing some public housing may not be the final answer to a complicated web of problems involving shelter, lifestyles, joblessness and poverty. But privatizing is certainly an approach worth trying.

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