Howard is urged to accept more poor River Hill criticized for expensive housing

September 13, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Howard County must be willing to double its population of poor people if Baltimore is to become the vibrant city it once was, urban poverty expert David Rusk told a packed crowd of about 110 people last night at Johns Hopkins University's Columbia Center.

And Columbia itself must "revitalize the spirit" on which it was founded -- construction of housing for people of all incomes -- instead of building areas like River Hill that are primarily for the rich, said Rusk, author of "Baltimore Unbound: a Strategy for Regional Renewal."

"One gets the sense," he told the audience, "that with each new development, with each new village, you move a little bit farther away from that concept."

In an interview, he added: "There has obviously been some flagging in that effort. That reflects a sort of distance and time from the guiding and spirit of [Columbia's developer] Jim Rouse."

Still, Rusk repeatedly praised Columbia's overall commitment to housing poor people.

"I do not want the perfect to be the enemy of the good," he said. "If all suburbs in Maryland, and in the nation, had been developed this way, society would be a lot better place."

But the subsidized housing that amount's to 6 1/2 percent of all Columbia housing falls short of its original goal of 10 percent, Rusk said. And that 6 1/2 percent is not necessarily the poorest of the poor, Rusk pointed out, because a lesser percentage of Columbia's population is below the poverty line.

As for the Baltimore region, Rusk provided a series of overhead projections and statistics to support his central themes:

Because they live primarily in poor neighborhoods. poor blacks in the Baltimore region face more challenges than poor whites who live primarily in middle-class neighborhoods. "If you're a black, poor kid who lives in the city, your network just leads you to the streets," he said.

The suburbs contributed to Baltimore's problems, because their sprawl helped draw the middle class from the city. Therefore, the suburbs should be part of the solution by taking in more people to live in federally subsidized housing.

The city, with less concentration of poverty, would become more attractive to middle class families, he said.

"Baltimore City cannot solve its problems by itself," said Rusk, who spoke in a booming voice while walking up and down the center aisle of a large classroom.

The audience, a mixture of community leaders, academics and curious Howard County residents, seemed fairly comfortable with Rusk's ideas.

One man said that moving poor people to the suburbs would do little good if they do not have public transportation to get to jobs.

Darrel Drown, chairman of the County Council, has called such remedies social engineering of the worst kind. Similar federal programs, he said, have failed.

In the Baltimore region, a housing discrimination lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland will force some of the changes Rusk proposes. In June, a federal judge approved an agreement that will enable more than 2,000 black Baltimore public-housing families to move to mostly white, middle-class areas over the next six years.

Rusk said the Baltimore region should go further on a policy basis -- by adopting housing practices similar to those in Montgomery County, which he called the best in the nation.

Under Montgomery's policies, when developers build a housing area, they must set aside 10 percent of the residences for middle class people who earn $35,000 or less annually. "They are your school teachers and your deputy sheriffs," he said.

Developers there also must set aside 5 percent of them for poor people.

Rusk said he has studied Montgomery County's program, interviewing rich and poor residents, and said it is working well. "It just flows as a matter of development," he said.

In Howard in 1993, the County Council voted 3-2 against a proposed housing policy similar to Montgomery's.

Rusk's criticism of Columbia's new River Hill Village follows earlier criticisms from leaders of the Howard County black community.

This week, community activist Sherman Howell, speaking at a public meeting about a proposed health club in River Hill, said: "There was opposition all along to putting low- and moderate-income housing in River Hill, and so it wasn't built."

About a quarter of the housing in River Hill has been constructed, all of it single-family homes ranging from about $200,000 to more than $400,000. About 500 apartments and townhouses are planned.

Alton J. Scavo, who manages Columbia for Rouse, has acknowledged that River Hill will have the most expensive housing in Columbia.

But he said that in the late 1970s, Rouse asked Howard County officials to zone 90 of River Hill's 1,745 acres for apartments, condominiums and townhouses, which are more affordable. The county officials gave Rouse only 33 acres.

"We tried," Scavo said. "We gave it our best effort."

Pub Date: 9/13/96

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