In the backyard of a rowhouse on North Lakewood Avenue, "Buster" and "Baby" romp on a bald patch of dirt, chomping on rats. Around-the-clock, rain or shine, the pit bull and his Rottweiler companion run in their pen behind Gloria Owens' house.
The rats live in the mound of garbage next door -- the wretched remains of a succession of families who have moved in and out of the three neighboring rental houses over the past five years.
"If it wasn't for my dogs, my house would be full of them by now," says Mrs. Owens, 35. "Sometimes you can hear them burrowing in the trash over there, chewing their way through the doors. But nobody seems to care. Not the tenants or the landlords or the city."
For Mrs. Owens and other homeowners in this integrated working-class neighborhood east of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, the landfills behind their homes are monuments to five years of bungling in a city-run federal housing program that doles out rent certificates to the poor. It has brought hundreds of such families to the once-tidy streets around Patterson Park, shattering the quality of life.
Now, the sudden decline of a community that has been a bulwark of progress in East Baltimore for 20 years is setting off alarms among urban affairs experts.
Into a one-square-mile community of 10,000 rowhouses, city records show, 736 families armed with $600-a-month rental certificates from the Housing Authority have settled. It is almost double the number five years ago -- and more are on their way -- rapidly approaching the total population of the six 11-story towers in the recently demolished Lafayette Courts housing projects.
But the city had no idea until last week that so many families had descended on the neighborhood, because the authority never tracked where the certificate-holders moved.
Operating with an antiquated records system and a shortage of inspectors, the authority nonetheless took millions of dollars from the federal government to manage the rental program and diverted it to drug programs in its faltering public housing complexes. As a result, it has been unable to gauge the impact of certificate families on neighborhoods or to intercede when things go wrong.
Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who inherited the program when he took over the agency two years ago, said the failings kept him from seeing until recently the magnitude of the problem in Baltimore neighborhoods like Patterson Park.
"The residents are absolutely right," he says. "We have been effectively dumping these families on them and we can't continue to do that."
Coupled with the sheer number of certificates, the lack of supervision has let problem families run amok. Civic associations seeking to identify the worst offenders have been stymied by privacy laws and the authority's poor record-keeping. Now, even responsible tenants, some of whom have joined homeowners in the fight to save the neighborhood, find themselves coming under suspicion.
One family traced by the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative destroyed at least three houses before being forced out in August, records show.
Meanwhile, the incidence of graffiti and vandalism -- not to mention gang violence and drug murders -- has exploded. A community that recorded six homicides for all of 1990 has logged that many so far this year on North Rose Street alone.
As if to underscore the situation, police swooped in last month with warrants charging 58 people with membership in a drug gang linked to 60 shootings and three homicides. The youngest, a 10-year-old named Issac, was from a certificate family.
Almost overnight, homeowners have watched the deterioration of the neighborhood cut their property values in half, city real estate and tax records show.
In the past year alone, 23 houses on a six-block length of North Rose Street have sold for as low as $8,000 -- mostly to investors seeking the above-market rents the certificates offer. On a street where seven out of 10 homes were owned by residents in 1990, every other address now sits boarded up or occupied by renters.
As slum landlords and tenants have reduced one rowhouse after another to ruined shells, city officials have refused to intervene -- even though taxpayers are covering the rent.
"A lot of these families are people you would be proud to have as neighbors," says Tracey LaBonte, a 29-year-old civic organizer. "But the program itself draws some of the slimiest landlords around. And when we go to the Housing Authority to complain, they tell us the lease is a private relationship between the landlord and the tenant, and there's nothing they can do about it.
"Basically, the city has been standing by while the neighborhood gets torn down. And our money, our tax dollars, are paying for it."
In the 600 block of Lakewood Avenue, Mrs. Owens has charted the decline by the size of the garbage mound in the alley beneath her kitchen window.