Calling it illegal and discriminatory, witnesses lambasted and condemned last night a Baltimore City Housing Authority plan to abruptly end a tenant selection process that gives preference to the poorest of the poor.
Speaking at a 90-minute hearing at Dunbar High School, speakers warned that elimination of a so-called federal preference system could also have dire consequences, increasing the number of homeless people in the city -- even leading to deaths.
Brandishing a brick from a demolished city public housing project and a bag of ashes, Brendan Walsh of Viva House, a homeless shelter, called the proposal "an outrage" that pits "the poor against the working poor."
Walsh charged that the poor and homeless had been left completely out of the process leading to the new policy.
City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who has proposed the new selection process, retorted that he already had plenty of the bricks.
"Please don't throw it," Henson quipped. "I have plenty of those."
Henson said that a group representing public housing tenants has submitted a written comment favoring the authority's plan.
Under the proposal, slated to become effective July 1, applicants for public housing and for publicly financed rent subsidies will be chosen based solely on their residency in the city and the date of their application.
Now, applicants who live in substandard housing, those without housing and those paying more than 50 percent of their income for rent are given a preference. Henson said that about 28,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing.
The preference system was required by the federal government until last year when Congress repealed it. It had been in effect since 1989.
The new policy, Henson has stated, is aimed at opening up public housing to the working poor, boosting rental income for the cash-strapped authority.
After the testimony last night, Henson said he would review all the comments before making a final decision.
"I've been known to change my mind," he said.
He said he decided to hold a public hearing even though it was not legally required.
"There is no intent to be stealthy," Henson said.
Nonetheless, speakers criticized Henson and the authority for proposing "a devastating change" in policy with obscure legal notices "that nobody reads."
"What we see is a perversion of the original goal of public housing," said Kimberly A. Propeack of the National Lawyers Guild.
Propeack charged that in the face of budget cuts, housing officials had chosen to side with the "rich and powerful" rather than their poor constituents. The real purpose of the new policy, she said, was to boost revenues and keep the authority afloat.
"This plan is a subterfuge," said Diane Pasternak of the Homeless Persons Representation Project. "It violates federal housing law," she asserted, charging it would discriminate against the homeless, the disabled, children and the elderly.
She said the plan "has a clear intent to discriminate."
Willa Bickham, representing a newly formed coalition of groups for the homeless and formerly homeless called Our Voices Heard, brandished a poster emblazoned with the word "Shame" and charged that the some tenants had been left homeless when the housing authority demolished high-rise buildings.
"I am not aware of that," Henson responded. "That was not the intent."
Pub Date: 6/11/97