Housing the Poor Is a Metropolitan Duty

September 23, 1994|By MARTIN A. DYER

In a recent column, ''Metropolitanism as a Fact that Must Be Faced,'' (Opinion * Commentary, Aug. 22) Neal R. Peirce described the rekindling of the regionalism debate in Minneapolis-St. Paul to deal with the concentration of the region's poverty in the Twin Cities.

The column makes clear that the problems confronting the Twin Cities are the same problems that afflict the Baltimore metropolitan area and large metropolitan areas throughout the country. I believe Sun readers should know precisely how similar the problems are and how desperately metropolitan solutions are needed.

Eighty-nine percent of public housing in the metropolitan area and 75 percent of subsidized housing are concentrated in Baltimore; more than 18,000 of 20,000 public housing units are here. Of the five counties in the metropolitan area, only Anne Arundel, with slightly more than 2,000 units, and Howard, with only 50 units, have any public housing at all. Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties have none.

The largest concentration of poverty in the region is also in the city. Slightly less than 22 percent of the its population lives at or below the poverty level. Outside the city, the story is quite different. Baltimore and Harford counties have poverty levels of 5.5 and 5.1 percent respectively; Anne Arundel, 4.5 percent; Carroll, 3.8 percent, and Howard 3.1 percent.

The statistics are even more alarming for areas where public housing is located. More than 67 percent of the families in those areas live in poverty; their unemployment rate is 23 percent, and their average gross income is below $7,000. Their schools are rated the worst in the state; only 30 percent of the children graduate from high school, and many who do graduate have never learned to read.

The exodus of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs from Baltimore into the surrounding counties, combined with the lack of affordable, accessible transportation and the failure of schools to train students for even those jobs that are available, has sealed the fate of many poor people in the city. Contrary to popular myth, there are no jobs for them, and dependency will continue unless they can live where jobs are available and where schools prepare them and their children for work.

The executive director of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, composed of the chief elected officials in the metropolitan area, has extolled regionalism as the only solution that will get us to a state of social health. I whole-heartedly agree. Housing for the poor is an area where a joint metropolitan approach is the only solution that makes sense.

The argument of a Minnesota legislator, Myron Orfield, that it is morally wrong for the affluent suburbs surrounding Minneapolis-St. Paul to insulate themselves from the poor while they snap up virtually all of the new jobs moving from those cities into their area is equally applicable to the Baltimore area.

People throughout the metropolitan area must recognize their dependency upon the vitality of Baltimore and its institutions that serve the entire metropolitan area. The concentration and segregation of the poor in the city, and the consequent erosion of the tax base, challenges the ability of the city to meet rising service needs. Thus, drug-related and other kinds of crime inevitably spill into the surrounding areas.

The fate of the city and the fate of the surrounding areas are inextricably interwined. As the city becomes increasingly undesirable for business, investors and new homeowners, so eventually will the entire metropolitan area. If the city fails, so will the entire region. The entire metropolitan area must share responsibility for finding regional solutions to the regional problem of housing the poor.

Carefully planned metropolitan housing strategies will not create new pockets of poverty but will help to integrate the poor into stable, mixed-income communities where they will have an opportunity to find employment, educate their children and generally improve their lives. Given such opportunities, the poor can become self-sufficient contributors to the communities in which they live.

In breaking down the barriers between jurisdictions and sharing with the city responsibility for providing housing and opportunities for the poor, the counties will be recognizing our interdependence in solving social problems.

Martin A. Dyer is associate director of Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.

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