Baltimore's high-rise hopes

December 08, 1993

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros trekked to Baltimore last week to announce a $50 million federal grant that will finance the razing of five high-rises at the Lafayette Courts public housing project and replace them with garden apartments.

If everything works according to plans, this will be the first stage in an ambitious $239.6 million scheme, to be bankrolled jointly by the federal, state and Baltimore City governments. The goal is to demolish a total of 15 of the 18 outdated and dangerous public housing towers in Baltimore and scatter their tenants more widely throughout the metropolitan area.

Most of those high-rise towers are about 40 years old. They were originally built to minimal standards at a time when no one could imagine that poor people would have individual washers and dryers, microwave ovens or color television sets. As a result, their plumbing capacity is inadequate and heavy electricity use causes frequent brownouts.

Until now, the federal government's posture has been to keep those high-rises going by repairing them -- although they have never been thoroughly modernized. With substantial renovation money in the pipeline at last, Baltimore housing officials decided that modernizing hopelessly outdated structures didn't make much sense. To its credit, the Clinton administration agreed that demolition and less dense reconfiguration were the way to go.

When the Baltimore high-rises were built, they were located in some of the poorest areas of the city. Over the years, the concentrated poverty of these vertical ghettoes have made their surrounding neighborhoods even less viable.

This was demonstrated yesterday in a report presented to a policy studies class at the Johns Hopkins University. Its documentation showed that by every socio-economic indicator, Baltimore's high-rises create pockets of hopelessness and despair in the city. The situation was further aggravated after courts began ordering that homeless people be given priority in public housing -- even though the lack of housing may have been only one of the problems of their dysfunctional lives.

Federal funds have been approved for the first high-rise demolition. Now comes the hard part. Scattering public assistance recipients among more stable families may be desirable as a means of lessening concentrated poverty, but it is tricky to do in practice. The federal government is right in insisting on workable plans before it releases the demolition money.

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