City abandons tenant service requirement

January 17, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writer

Yielding to an outcry from angry tenants, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III has abandoned a pioneering proposal to require those who rent the city's 18,000 public housing apartments to do community work.

Instead of making volunteer duties a condition to live in public housing, Mr. Henson has revised the lease to include a section that "encourages" tenants to mow lawns, tutor children or participate in other neighborhood activities.

"It's no longer mandatory," Mr. Henson said yesterday. But he quickly added that he was "absolutely still committed to the concept of community involvement."

"At the very least, this makes people aware of what it is to be involved in their community and asks them to be involved," he said.

Mr. Henson renegotiated the lease with tenant leaders after they VTC denounced the community service provision as a high-handed attempt by the Housing Authority to take control of their lives.

Many public housing residents also feared that they would be more vulnerable to evictions.

One of the chief reasons Mr. Henson gave for dropping the mandate was that he recognized it would be difficult to enforce.

The new version of the lease, which includes tougher standards for tenants to maintain their apartments, is up for adoption tonight by the city's housing commissioners.

Baltimore's Housing Authority was the first in the nation to attempt to require volunteer work as part of its lease. City and state officials championed the effort as a way to foster greater community involvement and instill pride in subsidized housing.

Last month, the city's five-member Board of Housing Commissioners approved incorporating the community service requirement in the lease over the fierce protests of tenants.

Under the original proposal, the more than 30,000 adults living in the city's 38 public housing developments would have been asked to select volunteer activities. No specific number of hours of community service were included in the plan.

Tenant leaders immediately mobilized against the requirement and sought a meeting with the mayor. In late December, after a session with several public housing residents and the mayor, Mr. Henson agreed to renegotiate the lease and delay its implementation for a month.

Anna Warren, who was among tenants charging they were being treated like "slaves" and "second-class citizens," is pleased with the new lease that will go into effect in February.

"It's not that we mind doing the work -- we already do community work," said Ms. Warren, a 35-year resident of Claremont Homes. "It's that we don't want to be told what we have to do. That should not be something to be eligible to come into public housing. We already have all these strikes against us; we don't need more."

The biggest problem with the community service requirement was that residents feared being evicted if they failed to live up to their promised goals, said Elizabeth Wright, head of the Residents Advisory Board that represents the public housing tenants.

Even though tenants still will be asked to become involved in their community, the emphasis is now on the "volunteer" nature of the work.

Mr. Henson has acknowledged that the authority erred by not showing residents a final draft of the original lease before it was approved Dec. 9. But he maintains that even encouraging community involvement will put Baltimore in the forefront of public housing reforms. "I think we're still moving this authority further than anybody else has been able to along the lines of getting people involved in their communities," he said.

The initial requirement had its genesis in talks with the state over replacing Baltimore's deteriorating high-rises with modern apartments scattered throughout the city. Maryland has committed $70 million to an ambitious plan by the city to level the cramped high-rise towers at Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace, Murphy Homes and Flag House. The first high-rise buildings at East Baltimore's Lafayette Courts will be torn down in April. The state already requires tenants to sign up for community duties to lease any of its low-income rental apartments. Jacqueline H. Rogers, Maryland's housing secretary, had suggested a similar requirement for the new apartments that will be built with the city to take the place of the outdated and dangerous high-rise buildings.

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke argued the plan backfired because "it was announced without the proper input from the tenants."

"The people that I saw protesting were all people who give hours and hours a week, so I know they believe in volunteer work," said Mrs. Clarke, who is challenging the mayor's bid for a third term. "They don't believe in having something shoved down their throats."

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