As one East Baltimore neighborhood grapples with a surge of poor families brought there by a city-run federal housing program, civic groups and government officials are calling it part of a growing citywide problem.
Residents of a one-square-mile community north of Patterson Park near Johns Hopkins Medical Center have been overrun by 736 families bearing $600-a-month rent certificates from the city Housing Authority in the past five years.
As a result, the neighborhood of 10,000 rowhouses has seen an explosion of violent crime, plummeting real estate values and a rush of real estate speculators seeking to buy out residents so they can convert their homes to apartments and cash in on the above-market rents offered by the city.
On Sunday, The Sun detailed efforts by residents to save the neighborhood, which Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III acknowledged has been unwittingly victimized by the city in its haste to expand the rental program by 30 percent since 1990.
Now, civic leaders say that what is happening in Patterson Park is tragically commonplace. As the number of families receiving rent subsidies has grown to almost 9,000 -- and as more enter the program with the demolition of Baltimore's public housing projects -- well-integrated neighborhoods such as Druid Heights, Rosemont, Pen Lucy, Waverly and Belair-Edison have been swamped as well.
"We definitely see it as a major factor in the flight of the middle class from some of these neighborhoods," said Jane Conover of the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "For years, they've been struggling to hold their communities together despite poor schools, rising crime and the dying of the elderly population, so they don't have the reserves to handle this kind of influx.
"It obviously hasn't been a well-administered program, and it's heartening to see that Dan Henson and the Housing Authority recognize the fact," she said.
Mr. Henson, who inherited the program when he took over the agency two years ago, said the Housing Authority never tracked where the families moved and has been unable to deal with neighborhood problems that have begun to spread across the city.
And the Housing Authority was not alone.
Harold Young, state director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the program with $51.6 million a year in federal subsidies, said yesterday that the federal government was caught unawares as well.
"Monitoring has never been a big part of our effort, so we never really looked at the concentration issue before," he said.
But residents say they have been complaining to federal, state and local officials for years about the worsening deterioration of their neighborhoods.
"We called the Housing Authority in excess of 30 times and nobody ever came down here to see us or talk to us or anything else," said Charlene Porter, 35, a mother of three who lives in Patterson Park. "How any of them can say this problem just snuck up on them is ridiculous. We've been dealing with it for five years now."
In October, the federal agency instituted new rules to increase tenant accountability by requiring them to put up substantial security deposits for the first time and to pay for any damage they do to rental units.
But the new rules will mean little without aggressive inspections by the Housing Authority, said Phyllis Smelkinson, a HUD manager in Baltimore. And the city's housing agency is suffering from a shortage of inspectors.
Mr. Henson has vowed to hire more inspectors and social workers to oversee the program. And a proposed settlement to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that seeks to move 1,342 families from public housing into the suburbs would require the city to provide counseling for them beforehand.
But residents in Baltimore's hardest-hit neighborhoods fear that the promised help will be too little, too late to save their communities.
"My car has been vandalized, my property has been ransacked, my block has been shut down by drug raids," said Judi Evering, 52, an accountant and mother of one from Belair-Edison who has watched half her street be taken over by rent-subsidized families.
"I have one lady living next door to me who I'd give the world for. And that's the real shame of it.
"We're all looking out our windows watching the rest of them destroy everything we have."