It makes no sense -- or does it? New public housing: At $310,650 a unit, Pleasant View Gardens apartments appear costly, but benefits may make them worthwhile.

October 07, 1997

IF YOU DIVIDE $105 million -- the total cost of the new Pleasant View Gardens public housing development near Baltimore's Main Post Office -- by the number of its 228 townhouses and 110 apartments, the unit cost is $310,650.

Whooa!

Sticker shock persists even after allowances are made for demolition, infrastructure and relocation costs as well as for day-care and recreation centers that are part of the new community being constructed.

Since the 1940s, politicians have occasionally griped about the perceived luxury of new public housing units. Taxpayers have wondered about social justice with questions such as, ''Why should a public housing family have air-conditioning when my family doesn't, and I work every day?''

This debate could be rekindled as Baltimore replaces its troubled public housing high-rises. The price tag is staggering -- but the costs must be weighed against potential benefits.

For the first time, the city is building subsidized communities where:

Public assistance tenants and working homeowners will be able to live side by side.

Job training, child-care centers and other support services exist to help welfare recipients go to work.

Low-density architectural design makes it easier to deter random crime.

"Creating mixed-income communities is what we are trying to do here," explains Daniel P. Henson III, the city's housing commissioner.

Will it work? Is it worth the price?

The answer probably won't emerge for decades. It took that long for policymakers to understand that most of America's initially successful public housing high-rises built in the 1940s and 1950s had become disastrous warrens of crime and poverty as manual jobs disappeared, the conventional family structure collapsed and a permanent underclass was born.

We can hardly sway those who are philosophically opposed to this kind of public spending and who see new communities such as Pleasant View Gardens as an extravagant waste of money. Those with open minds, whatever their doubts, may agree with us that this costly social experiment is worth the risk.

Replacement public housing is just one piece in the nation's larger, complex puzzle of trying to recreate the social welfare system. Providing pleasant housing will not be enough. It will also take jobs that can sustain economic expectations -- and the personal discipline that makes regular work a realistic goal.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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