Rebuilding public housing project

December 04, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros yesterday announced a $49.6 million federal grant to fund Baltimore's long-discussed plan to raze five high-rises at the Lafayette Courts public housing project and replace them with town homes.

A host of federal, state and city officials hailed the Lafayette plan as one that could serve as a model for America's troubled public housing stock, because it calls for less density, more tenant input in management and a better social service infrastructure to support residents.

The grant announcement, made yesterday before cheering tenants at the East Baltimore housing complex, culminates a five-year quest by the Schmoke administration to develop a plan and funding to rebuild the 38-year-old Lafayette Courts complex.

"There were a lot of people who were skeptical in the past, who hung in there," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "Now, they realize that dreams do come true."

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said it should take about six months to develop a plan to relocate the hundreds of tenants who will be displaced by the rebuilding process. He said demolition of buildings at Lafayette should begin by next fall, and work to rebuild the 1,800-resident complex should be completed in three or four years.

FTC The Lafayette plan calls for five high-rise buildings at the crime-ridden complex to be razed and the sixth to be renovated and converted into senior citizens housing. Also, 13 low-rise buildings will be torn down.

The demolition will take place in phases, in an effort to limit the number of tenants displaced at any one time. The housing authority will build 282 new town homes at the site to replace the demolished units. Also, the plan calls for 347 new housing units to be built or renovated on sites scattered around the city.

In all, the number of apartments at Lafayette will be reduced from 807 to 460 -- which officials hope will make the complex more conducive to family living. In addition, the plan calls for social service programs at the complex to be intensified. For instance, 33 of the new units will be for mothers with young children. Also, there are plans for more day care programs, and expanded job-training and educational programs.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $115 million. Officials said all of the money is in place or has been pledged to the project. It includes: the $49.6 million grant announced yesterday; $16 million in federal rehabilitation money already on hand; $7.5 million in city Community Development Block Grant funds; and $42 million, to come largely from state money already pledged by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"When it's done, Lafayette Courts won't be a project, it will be a community," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. "Public housing won't be a way of life, it'll be a way to a better life."

Word that the Lafayette plan is finally moving off the drawing board delighted residents of the housing development, which is packed into 21.5 acres between Orleans and Fayette streets near the city's main post office.

"It should have happened a long time ago; it's great," said Essie Brunson, a 12-year Lafayette resident.

Linda Love, president of Lafayette's tenant council who participated in planning for the redevelopment plan, said: "I'm excited. When this started, I had no idea what I was getting into. This was a real struggle, because there was a lot of doubt around here. People here are used to nothing happening."

And for a long time, it was questionable whether the Lafayette plan would ever be put into action. As recently as August, HUD rejected the city's application for the $49.6 million grant needed to make the plan a reality. At the time, Baltimore officials said they were shocked that their grant request was rejected.

But since then, Maryland's two Democratic U.S. senators, Ms. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes -- who hold posts on committees overseeing HUD's operations -- were able to advance changes in HUD regulations that ultimately helped the city get the grant.

In October, Governor Schaefer committed the state to participating in a plan to demolish most of the high-rise buildings at the four family high-rise complexes around the city: Lafayette, Flag House Courts, Lexington Terrace and George B. Murphy Homes.

Under the $293.6 million proposal, 1,116 units at the crime-ridden public housing high-rises would be demolished and replaced mostly with town homes, reducing density by 40 percent.

The proposal is to be implemented over seven years and calls for $193 million in federal funds, $65 million in state funds and $35 million in city money.

The plan -- which so far is funded only at Lafayette -- was endorsed by Mr. Cisneros and other HUD officials as a comprehensive approach to replacing public housing high-rises, which have been the sites of violent crime and vandalism across the country.

"We're looking forward to doing this three more times over the next several years in the city of Baltimore," said Jacqueline Rogers, Maryland's housing commissioner.

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