Baltimore Officials Anticipate Housing Changes

April 24, 1994|By MICHAEL FLETCHER

For months, Harry N. Karas had ignored the racial insults, the anti-gay rantings and the threats of physical violence from the guy next door.

Then one day his tormentor tried to make good on his words.

"I was in the hallway, and he said, 'You faggot, your day has come,' " Mr. Karas recalled. "He went inside his apartment, then I heard a 'click, click,' like somebody loading a shotgun."

Mr. Karas scrambled into his apartment and called police. When police arrived, they arrested and charged Mr. Karas' neighbor, who is mentally ill, for making the threats while having a loaded shotgun.

All of this took place in the Broadway, one of Baltimore's 18 high-rises for senior citizens -- places intended to provide poor, elderly people with safe, decent homes.

For a long time that vision was fulfilled. But in recent years, Baltimore's high-rises for senior citizens have been racked by crime.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which manages the buildings, traces much of the problem to a 1988 change in federal regulations that allowed the disabled to live in buildings for the elderly.

On the surface, allowing the disabled into housing for the elderly makes sense -- not unlike other changes made in public housing regulations during the Bush administration. But local officials say that, in practice, some of those well-intended federal edicts have undermined the quality of life in public housing.

The mandate that said the homeless must be moved to the top of public housing waiting lists also has had a devastating impact on public housing.

Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner, said that the change hurt because it added a large group of people burdened by serious social problems to communities already struggling to remain intact.

"Any time you take people who are basically dysfunctional -- and to a large extent the long-term homeless are dysfunctional -- you really need some transitional programs for them," Mr. Henson said "Unless you have some services to try to make them functional, you are going to have problems."

Evidence of that is clear in Baltimore, where the four family high-rise developments became open drug markets and rife with vacancies before the housing authority launched an emergency

cleanup and renovation program last June. Clearly, other factors contributed to those problems, but housing officials say that the impact of the federal mandates is significant.

Even now, those regulations continue to hurt, Mr. Henson said. He said that the eviction rate for tenants moved into newly renovated apartments is much higher than the overall rate because many of the people moved in were formerly homeless and lacked basic housekeeping skills.

"All of these ideas probably sounded good in Washington, but they have proven to be nightmares," Mr. Henson said.

Take moving the disabled into elderly housing, for instance. It makes sense until you understand that, as defined by the federal government, "disabled" includes people with long-term sicknesses, the mentally ill, and recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

Adding those people to the mix in Baltimore's senior citizen housing has proven to be a disaster. There are unwelcome visitors roaming the hallways, and crime is increasing. The result is that more people want transfers, and the buildings are losing their reputation as desirable places to live.

"People come to our elderly buildings because they want to feel safe and be with people of their own age," Mr. Henson said. "I think we had to step in and reorient ourselves to the original purpose of senior housing."

The Baltimore housing authority is moving to separate its elderly and disabled populations. Currently, the housing authority reports that its high-rises for the elderly house nearly 5,000 seniors and an estimated 450 disabled people.

A change in the regulation is slowly making its way through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. But Mr. Henson is "jump starting" the change by setting aside for the disabled two of the city's buildings for senior citizens. Nobody will be forced to move, but all new disabled tenants sent to seniors housing will be moved to one of the two buildings, which have yet to be designated.

At the Broadway, the East Baltimore high-rise where Mr. Karas is president of the tenants' council, this is welcome news.

"Right now, you have people here who get back on drugs, or oftheir medication and they get violent toward the seniors," said Mr. Karas, a 42-year-old who is allowed to live in seniors housing because he has AIDS. "They go to the seniors because they are easy prey."

Once, someone kicked a hole through the wall of a senior citizen's apartment, then walked in to steal a telephone as the 70-year-old woman who lives in the apartment cowered in a closet.

Mr. Karas believes that seniors deserve to live without the threat of that kind of terrorism -- even if it means he has to move.

"What happened to that lady is sickening," he said. "All of the young people, including myself, need to get the hell out of the Broadway so these people can live with dignity."

Michael Fletcher covers Baltimore city government.

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