Over the fiercely shouted protests of two dozen tenants, the Baltimore housing commissioners approved a pioneering proposal last night to require those who rent the city's 18,000 public housing units to do community work.
At the emotional hourlong meeting, a furious group of tenants stood up to denounce the requirements as intolerable and a high-handed attempt by the city Housing Authority to take control of their lives. Tenant leaders also complained they never signed off on the controversial mandate, which is being incorporated into all public housing leases.
"We're not going to sit back and take this," cried Anna Warren, 58, who has lived in Claremont Homes for 35 years. "We're being treated like slaves, and we've got to do like you say, or we can't live there. You're telling us we ought to be getting down on our knees and saying we're thankful for living there."
William Ruff, vice president of the tenant council at Monument East, said he and his elderly neighbors already devote much of their time to sweeping sidewalks.
"You don't have enough of your staff to do the work. We voluntarily clean it, and you don't even give us the support to clean it," he said, pointing at Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. Another woman interrupted to say she was retired and planned to do no more work cleaning her building.
In the midst of the tirade, three of the five housing commissioners quietly and unanimously approved the lease. One board member was ill and another has resigned.
"I think this is a terrible overreaction on the part of some folks," Mr. Henson said after the meeting. "For the average resident, what we hope it means is to make a stronger community. It was not without controversy, but we hope we can move forward in the next few weeks in partnership with our communities."
Baltimore is believed to be the first in the nation to require volunteer duties as part of its lease under the effort championed as a way to foster greater community involvement. The new lease, which goes into effect in January, does not mandate a specific number of hours each tenant must contribute.
Customized plans will be developed for the more than 50,000 residents of the city's 38 public housing communities. The descriptions of community service are broad to include everything from sweeping the sidewalk to calling to check on the elderly. Board member Cleoda Walker, who grew up in a public housing development in the 1950s and 1960s, pointed out that many residents already fulfill the requirement.
"I looked at this from the heart," said Ms. Walker, who added that she resented the accusation from tenants that the proposal had been "rubber-stamped" by the board.
"I think any citizen should have a vested interest in the community," she said. "For so long, people in public housing have been thought to be worthless. This is empowerment. It builds self-pride."
Several protesters argued that the board planned to secretly push through the community service requirement by meeting on a Friday evening. Elizabeth Wright, the residents' representative who sits on the board, argued that her fellow board members had not acted in good faith because tenants were not given another chance to review the lease.
"Why is it that the authority always wants to impose the responsibility on the residents?" asked Ms. Wright, who does not have voting power but called for tabling the proposal. "It's very disturbing to me because it was not done in good faith."
Mr. Henson said he spent a year meeting with residents and building managers to negotiate the lease revisions. The revised lease also created a 30-day eviction process for those convicted of drug offenses.
"We wanted to hear from them, and we did, and we made changes at each step of the process," he said.
The lease requirement comes at a time when conservatives nationwide are attempting to make recipients of social programs more accountable.
"Some residents will be pleased with this document, and some residents will not be," board chairman Reginald Thomas, who also was joined by board member Sharon Grinnell, said over the tenants' jeers.
But the outburst from the tenants surprised a number of community leaders in Baltimore, who said that asking residents to become more involved in public housing is overdue. Sixth District City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said he fully supported the effort, as did Council Vice President Vera P. Hall, who chairs the council's housing committee.
"I really think we've got to urge residents to be part of their lives, to be involved, not just to sit there and let things go on," she said. "Some of the elder ones want the younger folks to step up and start getting active."