Elderly fear youth influx into housing Senior tenants say crime follows changes at public complexes

July 16, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel's public housing for senior citizens, the largest suburban program of its kind in Maryland, has reached a frightening crossroads.

In recent years, elderly residents have watched federal policy shift to allow younger, disabled tenants to become their neighbors. The disabilities range from retardation to job-related strains to past drug addiction, but the effect on the 575 seniors living in Anne Arundel public housing is the same: They are scared, occasionally terrified.

"You can't put your head in the sand and ignore what's going on," said John Showers, 77, who has been living in Glen Burnie's Burwood Gardens with his wife, Genevieve, since 1983.

In the past 18 months, a 65-year-old mildly retarded woman was raped repeatedly in her one-room efficiency at Glen Burnie's Pinewood Villages, one of seven Anne Arundel public housing complexes. For weeks, a young neighbor in gray pajamas broke in during the night, threatening to kill her if she didn't keep quiet.

A 79-year-old man, ill and confined to a wheelchair, was robbed while he sat helplessly by. He left his door unlocked in case he needed emergency medical attention, a common practice in apartments for the elderly.

And while federal housing policy prohibits violent criminals from living in public apartments, a Glen Burnie man convicted of assault, sex abuse and drug possession continued living in Pinewood after mo-lesting the daughter of his common-law wife.

Vandalism, assault, theft, drug use and disorderly conduct among younger tenants trouble the county's six other complexes as well, according to police records.

Now Anne Arundel housing officials are trying to balance the interests of two very different clients. Should disabled residents live apart to give seniors peace of mind during their final years?

Or do scarce housing resources mean young and old must live together, even if that arrangement is potentially dangerous?

Many seniors agree with Showers, who believes housing officials should bar young tenants from elderly housing: "It's like having a small tumor. You better damn well do something about it, or it's going to grow."

Demographic changes

The proportion of young tenants in formerly seniors-only housing is increasing, not only in Anne Arundel but around the Baltimore metropolitan area as more disabled residents apply to live in the region's 21,000 public apartments.

Low-income rental housing has been in sharp decline. From 1987 through 1991, according to the most recent federal statistics available, the Baltimore region lost 10,800 low-rent apartments, or 12 percent of the stock.

Now 80 percent of Anne Arundel's elderly housing is occupied by people at least 55 years old. But the county's 1,200-person waiting list for public housing is weighted toward younger, disabled applicants.

"Housing priorities move the neediest people to the top of the waiting list," said Stephanie Garrity, assistant director of Anne Arundel's Department of Aging. "And the neediest more and more are younger, disabled people."

Inside Anne Arundel's Housing Authority, a quasi-public agency with a $9 million annual budget, officials are debating how to manage "mixed population buildings."

"We don't know the best way to handle that," said Larry A. Loyd, the agency's executive director. "We don't want to see a property that's all disabled.

"But there are more disabled people in the marketplace than in the 1980s or in the 1970s," he said.

Two changes in federal law are at the root of the dilemma.

In 1988, the federal Fair Housing Act was amended to open senior housing to disabled clients. Apartment complexes once occupied entirely by people 62 years or older soon were taking in tenants half that age.

Then the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act expanded the federal definition of "disabled" to include recovering addicts.

Increased problems

"That exacerbated the situation," said Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's housing commissioner. "Part of the problem is that, as society's problems increased in the 1980s, the solution was to let public housing solve them."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently has allowed housing authorities to begin designating public apartments as seniors only, and Baltimore officials acted quickly to address the problem Anne Arundel now is facing. Baltimore runs 39 public housing complexes, 21 of which accept seniors.

"We were seeing a proliferation of young men with gunshot wounds moving into the seniors' housing," Henson added.

"The recovering substance abusers and those with gunshot wounds would bring society's problems into the elderly buildings with them."

Now 19 buildings are reserved for people at least 60 years old. Younger tenants were not evicted, but new tenants below the age threshold will no longer qualify.

The Annapolis Housing Authority also has started reserving apartments for seniors -- "segregating," Loyd says.

In the Harbor House complex, two buildings with 30 refurbished apartments are designated seniors only.

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