Mikulski's opportunity Housing controversy: With division in the region, U.S. senator might broker a peace.

November 17, 1995

WHO BETTER than Barbara A. Mikulski -- U.S. senator, former leader of an appropriations subcommittee on housing and urban affairs, former social worker and City Council member -- to try and bridge the chasm between Baltimore and its suburbs over the relocation of public housing tenants from the city?

Not only would Ms. Mikulski carry the authority of her office, she's in the legislative catbird seat. A bill being pushed by Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-2nd, to block funds for the housing transfer must cross the Senate, which is likely to defer on the issue to the local senator.

Baltimore is trying to settle a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union over the concentration of poor blacks in city public housing by moving hundreds of families to the suburbs. Its program is fashioned after one in Chicago in which tenants in city projects received housing vounchers but were dispersed so their impact on their new neighborhoods was minimal and their indecent living conditions were vastly improved. Baltimore was reputedly the only metropolitan area last year to fight a similar program, called Moving to Opportunity.

Ironically, it was Ms. Mikulski who blocked funding for the Baltimore program in 1994, but she seems supportive of the concept in general.

More consensus exists than the parties want to admit: They agree that large housing projects have failed and that children who live there face bleak futures. They concur that if the city continues as the region's poorhouse, problems will seep into the suburbs and make them less attractive to business. Any housing solution needs to guarantee pre-screening and counseling for families and scattered placement so as not to destabilize neighborhoods.

This is largely a local matter, but there is scant local political incentive to resolve it in a constructive way. The Schmoke administration arrogantly views its agreement with the ACLU as payback for years of public housing disparity between the city and the suburbs. As for the county executives, each time they pound the table against this, their popularity in the polls rises. They and Mr. Ehrlich have focused only on what has not worked. Ms. Mikulski ought to seize this moment to move the discussion toward what could work.

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