Public Housing Gets Tough on Drugs

January 30, 1995

Up to now, officials of the Baltimore City Housing Authority have often contended that they cannot do more about drug users and traffickers because leases give offending tenants the right to time-consuming hearings.

With the adoption of revised lease documents, this excuse is gone. The new leases state clearly that tenants are responsible not only for any personal drug or criminal activity but for drug-use or crimes committed by a "member or guest under Tenant's control. . . on or near Tenant's premises/dwelling unit." Once such activity has been established, the Housing Authority has the right to terminate a lease without a hearing.

This is a long-overdue change. If strictly and aggressively implemented, these new documents ought to give the authorities the necessary tools to help clean Baltimore's troubled housing complexes of irresponsible and criminal tenants.

Less welcome was the decision by Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III to emasculate his controversial proposal requiring tenants of the 18,000 public housing apartments to do community work. Instead, tenants are merely "encouraged to perform certain tasks which are appropriate to the development which tenant occupies."

Watering down the community service requirement was clearly done for political motives so as not to upset tenants or powerful tenant councils just eight months before Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is seeking re-election. His likely chief challenger is Mary Pat Clarke, the popular City Council president who is quick to turn community concerns into campaign issues and who once spent a night at a troubled-plagued public housing project.

During last year's race for governor, Mr. Schmoke's strategists targeted public housing tenants for voter mobilization. They told tenant councils that the election of Parris Glendening was a matter of life and death for the city. The councils were told that unless they delivered, "there won't be room at the table" where decisions are made.

The tenant councils took this literally: They showed up en masse at a Housing Authority board meeting after Mr. Glendening's narrow victory and demanded room at the table!

One reason the community service requirement became such a hot political potato was Mr. Henson's failure to present it more diplomatically and to explain it to the councils. That is unfortunate. The proposal was a sound one and would have helped the Housing Authority build a sense of community and collective responsibility in the public housing projects.

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