Mapping road from poverty On the move: The experiences of the nearly 100 families who have moved to middle-class neighborhoods in the Moving to Opportunity program offer a guide to how such programs work.

February 26, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Moving away from poverty, Lenora Smith watched the last of her worldly goods head down the tiny elevator from the Flag House Courts public housing project's ninth floor to a borrowed truck waiting below.

She left her cramped Flag House apartment for good Feb. 19. She bid farewell to the trash-strewn high-rise where her 16-year-old daughter had become a mother and where she feared that her 15-year-old son would be recruited into the drug trade.

"Bye, Flag," Ms. Smith said, locking the metal door. "I ain't going to miss you. I'll miss the people, but I won't miss you."

The Smith family is one of 99 that have moved from public or subsidized housing in inner-city Baltimore to middle-income neighborhoods around the metropolitan area under a small federal program called Moving to Opportunity (MTO).

The MTO experiment, which is a year old, is the best available guide to how "housing mobility" programs -- which aim to reduce dense concentrations of poor people -- might work in the Baltimore area.

The program's record is significant because, under the proposed settlement of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, more than 2,000 public housing families are expected to make similar moves to middle-class neighborhoods over the next six years.

MTO caused such a storm of protest in Baltimore County when it was unveiled in 1994 that Congress killed plans to expand it. In a racially tinged debate, angry opponents contended that an influx of the city's poor would destabilize troubled county neighborhoods.

In fact, nearly two-thirds of the families who have moved have, like Ms. Smith, stayed in the city, close to bus lines, family and friends.

It is too early to assess how well the MTO program has succeeded, but the experiences of Lenora Smith and two other families who have left the inner city -- along with anecdotal evidence collected by MTO officials -- offer clues:

* Lack of transportation, more than any other factor, has kept most families in the city or close-in suburbs.

* The need to come up with cash to pay security deposits and the prospect of paying monthly utility bills have discouraged many families from leaving public housing.

* Because of those factors, relocation has been slow. Program officials had expected that almost all of the 143 eligible families would have moved by now.

* Counseling to recruit landlords, help families find rental housing and teach tenants how to care for their homes has cost about $4,000 per family.

"If five years from now these families have gotten economically successful enough to get off Section 8 [housing subsidies] and have gotten their kids to graduate high school and go to college in great numbers, the $4,000 becomes minor," said Ruth Crystal, director of the MTO project for the Community Assistance Network, a Dundalk-based nonprofit agency.

*

Ms. Smith, daughter Tonya, son James and 18-month-old grandson Tyrone Price moved about five miles last week from Flag House, just east of downtown, to a brick, three-bedroom rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore.

But the psychological distance was clearly much greater. At Flag House, single-parent families subsisting on public assistance are the norm. In the Smiths' quiet new neighborhood, most residents are married couples, homeowners and employed. About 3 percent of families there were on welfare, according to the 1990 census, compared with more than 60 percent at Flag House.

During her move, Ms. Smith constantly worried that her two television sets might not make it from Flag House's ninth floor to the borrowed truck without being stolen.

"Please watch my TV's, please watch my TV's, Jesus Lord," she pleaded.

When an elevator load of furnishings was inadvertently sent below without an escort, Ms. Smith shouted anxiously to friends through the chain link fence that encloses Flag House's walkways, urging them to watch it. They did.

"We know that if that door opens up and somebody sees it, it's gone," said Milton Tyler, a neighbor who helped the Smiths move. "People look out for people here, but when push comes to shove, if there's something available, people are going to take it."

Ms. Smith, 37, has been a receptionist for 11 years at a Southwest Baltimore printing business. She had lived at Flag House since 1985, after spending a month in a homeless shelter with her children. Despite three break-ins at her apartment, she is quick to say that many good people live in the high-rise.

But the cocaine trade, the quick money to be had and the frequent sound of gunfire all made Ms. Smith worry that James would end up in jail or worse.

"Living here will make a world of difference to me and my children," she said as she watched her grandson prance across her new living room. "Being in this house has made me happier than I ever thought I'd be."

*

Robin Brown, a geriatric nursing aide, is among six MTO families to move to Columbia and one of the few to own a car. She and her sons, John Davis, 14, and Hezekiah Davis, 11, lived at Somerset Homes in East Baltimore.

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