Housing Controversy Replay

August 07, 1994|By LARRY CARSON

The roiling controversy in eastern Baltimore County over the new federal Move to Opportunity subsidized housing program may seem new, but it isn't.

It's merely the latest expression of a hard-as-stone attitude -- often racially tinged -- that has been an open political sore in Baltimore County since the start of the white migration from Baltimore City in the late 1950s.

For 30 years, the fear among whites that the federal government might pay to help poor black people follow them to the suburbs created a distrust that drove eastern Baltimore County politics. And since eastern county politicians have virtually dominated county government since then, those attitudes have had powerful expression in county government policies.

In 1964, for example, County Executive Spiro T. Agnew, then considered a liberal Republican, sparked a furor by advocating urban renewal for Catonsville and Towson and a county housing code to attack blight. Beneath the "hysterical" opposition, according to Neal A. Brooks and Eric G. Rockel in their book, "A History of Baltimore County," was "a fear that urban renewal would bring unwanted public housing."

Mr. Agnew lost his battle, and was replaced in 1966 by conservative, eastside Democrats who campaigned on their promise to keep federal housing programs for the poor out of the county.

This year, those fears have gained strong new expression in the opposition to the Move to Opportunity (MTO) program, and local politicians are either trying to profit from it or are running for cover.

At a crowded church basement meeting in Dundalk on July 27, for example, James M. McKinney, a Democratic candidate for House of Delegates and until recently a staff aide to Republican County Executive Roger B. Hayden, tried to help himself and shield his former boss from political harm.

He told an angry anti-MTO crowd that he protested the program on Mr. Hayden's behalf and that the county executive has cut funds to the Community Assistance Network (CAN), the county's anti-poverty agency that has contracted to administer MTO. Robert Gajdys, director of CAN, said the program has not experienced any budget cuts related to the MTO program, however.

Mr. Hayden has complained that the county government was left out of planning for the MTO program, but he has not condemned or praised the program itself.

The irony is that the pilot program will likely have little impact on the county's east side, despite wild rumors to the contrary.

The federal Housing and Urban Development program will spend $12 million to move 285 families from poor inner-city neighborhoods to nicer areas that they choose in the city and the surrounding metropolitan counties starting this fall. Many families are expected to choose to stay in the city, close to their extended families, while others may go anywhere in the area, including Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties.

Mr. Gajdys said recipients may not choose census tracts with more than a 10 percent poverty level, which excludes parts of Dundalk and Essex. He speculated, however, that very few, if any, will choose those communities anyway, because they might expect to face hostility there.

Residents in older eastern county areas, already worried about absentee landlords, drugs, unemployment and crime, don't believe that. They think they are primary targets for government experiments in what they regard as social engineering. They fear that talk about demolishing high-rise public housing in downtown Baltimore means that those residents could be moved en masse into their midst. They believe their economically depressed neighborhoods have been targeted to become new ghettos by well-paid, uncaring federal bureaucrats who live in wealthy suburbs far away.

Baltimore is one of five cities chosen for the MTO program nationwide, and only in eastern Baltimore County has there been a fuss.

Participants in the program will be divided into two groups, one that gets counseling and one that gets no support besides the rent subsidy, for a 10-year period. The hope is to break the cycle of poverty and defeat and encourage the children, if not the adults, to change the pattern of their lives.

The fear the program has aroused in the county is just the 1994 version of the protests that erupted exactly 30 years ago.

That fear is the reason Baltimore County, with a population nearly equal to Baltimore City's, has never built any public housing,and had no official home in county government for housing programs until 1987, when former executive Dennis F. Rasmussen created the Department of Community Development.

The lack of any government housing office in 1972, when the federal Section 8 program, which provides subsidies for low-income renters in private housing, began, resulted in the county awarding a contract to administer the program to a private Realtor -- a political crony of former County Executive Dale Anderson.

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