City's poor to get help relocating

June 13, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

By September, the first of about 285 families will be moving from Baltimore poverty areas into neighborhoods of their choice under an experimental federal program aimed at broadening housing choices for low-income people.

Moving to Opportunity, or MTO, is called a "demonstration" by the sponsoring U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is intended to uplift low-income families by helping them to move into neighborhoods with quality schools, better living conditions and job opportunities.

Baltimore is one of four cities nationally that won a competition involving 16 cities seeking federal funds for the five-year program. The others are Boston, Chicago and New York. Los Angeles was mandated by HUD to be part of the program, and did not compete. About 6,200 families will be involved nationally.

Baltimore will get about $12 million in Section 8 rent certificates, plus about $500,000 in administrative money from the $70 million program, which was funded by Congress last year.

The director of the nonprofit organization handling the local effort said he assumes most of the families will choose to move into neighboring counties -- some in time for school openings -- but he said the impact will be minimal.

"This is small potatoes in comparison to other housing programs," said Robert Gajdys, executive director of Community Assistance Network (CAN), a Baltimore County anti-poverty agency.

Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore housing director, chose CAN to handle a part of the program that is considered experimental.

Mr. Gajdys, 56, a retired senior executive with the U.S. Department of Commerce and director of CAN for four years, described MTO as a "one-shot deal" that could provide a model for larger federal housing initiatives.

Rumors involving the program have been circulating through jurisdictions around Baltimore since the local program was announced in March, including one that said HUD would "dump" several hundred poor families from Lafayette Court and Murphy Homes in Baltimore into low-income apartment complexes in Essex in eastern Baltimore County.

Public officials have been harried with questions by concerned citizens, and radio talk shows have received calls about it.

"Hogwash," Mr. Gajdys said.

"This is not a program that would move poverty into poverty. It would be suicide to set up more enclaves of poverty when the purpose is to break them up," he said.

Such fears are the result of "misinformation," Mr. Gajdys said. CAN will hold public meetings this summer to answer questions and to clear up misunderstandings.

Eligible families are those living in public housing areas in Baltimore where 40 percent or more of the families earn below poverty level incomes. A family must include at least one child.

Families chosen for MTO will receive Section 8 funds, a federal subsidy that pays up to 100 percent of rent for families below the poverty level. They may move to neighborhoods -- in the city or elsewhere -- where no more than 10 percent of families fall below the poverty level, as defined by federal guidelines.

These earnings levels range from $9,840 for a single parent and child, to $24,720 for a family of eight. Each family member above eight would add $2,480 to the amount.

MTO tenants will pay no more than 30 percent of their income in rent, and will receive rent certificates acceptable anywhere in the United States.

MTO's experiment

Under the MTO plan, half the families who qualify will be in an experimental group and will receive counseling and guidance from CAN in their move.

The other half will get little personal assistance, which marks the major difference between MTO and other relocation programs around the country. By setting up control groups, HUD hopes to determine the value of close monitoring and counseling to low-income families moving from impoverished neighborhoods.

Sandra Newman, acting director of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies, called MTO a "bold move" that will help determine the future of federal housing.

"This is basically a research program," Ms. Newman said. "HUD has lagged behind on housing research."

Mr. Henson said, "This is an opportunity for a few residents who are ready for a move and request a change to make an informed choice on housing."

Families in the experimental group will be advised on such things as how to look for an apartment or house, how to deal with a landlord and how to take care of their property. They will be tracked closely by CAN counselors, and reports will be sent to HUD on a biennial basis.

All eligible residents of public housing in Baltimore will receive letters informing them of the MTO program. A number of these families will be picked at random by computer for interviews.

Those with a criminal history or a record of poor behavior will be screened out of the program, Mr. Henson said. A credit check also will be made for the convenience of potential landlords.

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