Scare tactics bring down federal housing program

October 30, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Sun Staff Writer

On a warm, late September evening, 300 Dundalk and Essex residents met at Dundalk Middle School to beat a dead horse.

For months, politicians and community activists had whipped eastern Baltimore County residents into a frenzy over a small, experimental federal program that will move 285 Baltimore families from public housing into better neighborhoods in the city and surrounding suburbs.

They told the audiences that the city wanted to empty its housing projects into their neighborhoods, and their listeners believed it.

"More than 18,000 families are coming to Baltimore County," activist Jerry Hersl told the Dundalk audience. "What is the grand agenda?"

It was all a political hoax. There never was a plan to move 18,000 families to Baltimore County, and county officials estimate that no more than 40 of the 285 families will choose to move to the county under the Moving to Opportunity program.

The $149 million for expansion of MTO was killed by Congress in August, a victim of the Eastside backlash. Once the 285 families move, MTO will be history.

But there was still political mileage in that dead horse a month later, and politicians swarmed around the carcass.

"Go look at all the empty houses in Baltimore -- but drive with your doors locked. Why don't they put them there?" Helen Delich Bentley, the district's Republican congresswoman, told the Dundalk audience.

"They're spending our money without thinking it through," said County Executive Roger B. Hayden.

"They have to teach them the basics of living," Democratic Del. Louis L. DePazzo said.


According to those who supported it and those who fought it, MTO died because it came up in an election year. The key players in its destruction were Mr. Hersl, 39, who formed a political action committee, Responsible Citizens Against MTO; Raymond C. Shiflet, 68, a retired railroad electrician and Hersl partner who took up MTO to bring his fledgling Eastern Political Association some attention; and Mr. DePazzo, who was seeking a seat on the County Council and used MTO to bludgeon his opponent in the primary.

Their campaign revived old racial fears in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the Eastside and struck a nerve among residents who said they were tired of what they saw as government handouts to people who won't work.

The controversy brought national television cameras to Eastside meetings, including those from CBS' "60 Minutes." It stunned high-ranking officials in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and buckled the knees of Maryland's U.S. senators.

MTO was conceived during the Bush administration and funded under the Clinton administration with bipartisan support in Congress, including the votes of Maryland's entire delegation.

The five-city pilot program, in addition to providing Section 8 housing funds, offered intensive counseling to half the families that signed up. These families would be monitored over 10 years to see whether counseling enabled them to improve their lives.

Section 8 provides federal subsidies for low-income renters in private housing.

Baltimore's initial share of MTO money was $12.5 million. Most federal programs are announced with great fanfare, but this one arrived almost unnoticed.

The Baltimore Housing Authority contracted MTO's implementation to the Community Assistance Network (CAN), a private, nonprofit social services agency in Baltimore County. CAN briefed county officials on MTO Sept. 22, 1993. Though county officials were upset because they hadn't been brought in on the planning, they did not foresee the turmoil ahead.

Nor was there much discussion in March, when Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others briefed executives from the surrounding counties -- including Mr. Hayden -- at a meeting of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a group that focuses on regional issues.

One high-ranking HUD official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says HUD clearly didn't see the problem coming.

"They were involved in the nuts and bolts and planned to go to the community with it when they got everything together," he said. "They just didn't believe such a small program would attract that kind of attention. There was never any effort to keep it a secret."

Daniel P. Henson III, executive director of the Baltimore Housing Authority, is bemused by the anger.

"We've issued 9,000 Section 8 certificates over the years," he said. "I don't understand the fuss over 285 families, most of whom will stay in the city. And why would the good people of Dundalk and Essex think we would want [program participants] to come to an area that's already depressed?"

As of Oct. 17, there were 3,825 Section 8 recipients in the county, of whom about a third are elderly or disabled, according to Frank W. Welch, director of the county's Department of Community Development. Of that number, he said, 670 have come from Baltimore over the past five to 10 years.


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