'It can work anywhere' Adjustment: Many poor Omaha families who moved, with public funds, to outlying areas have struggled -- as have their new neighbors. Is there a lesson for Baltimore?

January 01, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

OMAHA, Neb. -- The way Cheryl Brunt sees it, she gets a fair chance to raise three children away from the dangers of public housing projects.

The way many of her neighbors see it, Ms. Brunt has it made. The city of Omaha purchased a three-bedroom house in a middle-class suburb. The city makes all repairs.

And Ms. Brunt -- a 33-year-old, self-employed, single mother -- pays rent of only $130 a month under a program aimed at breaking up housing projects by moving poor inner-city residents, most of them black, to better-off, largely white areas.

Omaha's 10-year-old scattered-site housing program that enabled her to move out of the inner city is similar to a controversial plan proposed for the Baltimore region.

Even with the differences between Omaha and Baltimore, the Nebraska program provides insights into the potential impact of such moves.

In Omaha, moving the poor to middle-class areas has led to plenty of tension all around. Some middle-class suburbanites resent public assistance and fear the program will lower their property values. Some have reacted with racist behavior.

Ms. Brunt feels the resentment all around her: "From time to time, I do think about moving back [to the inner city]. The pressure gets so great."

But the Omaha program is considered successful by federal and city housing officials, many of the participating poor and some of their neighbors. Fears that it might lower property values and raise crime have not been realized.

And officials here say there is no better alternative to large housing projects.

"We're not going to solve this overnight," Omaha Housing Authority Director Robert L. Armstrong said of the national problem. "But if we don't, then we're all going to go down in flames."

To be sure, Omaha's problems differ from Baltimore's.

Baltimore has 18,000 public housing units, almost 10 times as many as Omaha. Baltimore's unemployment rate is much higher. In Baltimore, the relocation program is aimed at poor, black families; in Omaha, about 72 percent of those moving are black.

Perhaps the key difference is that suburban areas receiving Omaha's poor fall mostly within the city limits. In Baltimore, most areas to receive the poor are in neighboring counties, and they aren't cooperating; Baltimore County even has threatened to sue if forced to take in too many poor.

As a federal housing official in Omaha put it: "We're not ringed by suburbs that are totally against this."

Nonetheless, Omaha may offer lessons for the Baltimore area as it grapples with the proposal by Baltimore officials to settle part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the city to break up the concentration of blacks in housing projects.

That settlement would offer 1,342 rental assistance vouchers to inner-city families during the next six years. The families would move to largely white, middle-class neighborhoods -- restrictions that rule out much of Baltimore City.

Omaha is not the only city with a similar program. The best known is Chicago, where a 1990 Northwestern University study found that 54 percent of black children who had moved went to college -- vs. 21 percent of those who stayed in the projects.

"Peer pressure, spoken and unspoken, changes behavior," a federal housing official in Omaha said of the dynamic that is the goal of the program.

In Omaha, officials have purchased 336 housing units throughout the city -- mostly single-family homes, but also duplexes and apartments. They generally cost $50,000 to $70,000, the price of middle-class homes in Nebraska. The houses are scattered.

Families must meet certain criteria, including holding the same job for a year. They generally devote 30 percent of their income to rent. Eventually, they may buy their homes.

The program already has enabled Omaha to demolish one large housing project; a second is being torn down.

Twelve years ago, Lillie Blanks used to live in one of the projects still standing, where she said her son Nate, then 15, was "headed for trouble."

After the family moved to a middle-class area, Nate tried to ride his bike back to his old friends, but soon lost interest. Today, he's married, has three children and works for the 3M company, Ms. Blanks said.

When asked about her son's fate if she hadn't moved, Ms. Blanks, 58, points to his old friends: "They're either in prison or strung out on drugs. They just look like old men now. My son thanks me all the time."

But the program has not been without struggles for her. When she moved in 1983, she and her neighbor -- also a program participant -- were the only blacks in their middle-class (x neighborhood. Someone painted the word "nigger" on her neighbor's car.

Mr. Armstrong, the Omaha housing director, tries to defuse suburban resistance with an aggressive approach. When suburbanites speak heatedly in community meetings against receiving the poor, he offers his home telephone number for complaints about tenants.

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