Revolutionizing public housing Overhaul: To pay bills, Housing Authority hopes to attract working people to its units.

March 01, 1998

THE CITY Housing Authority is in the midst of a quiet revolution. Even as it keeps replacing antiquated high-rise complexes with suburban-type townhouses, it recognizes the federal gravy train is grinding to a halt. The question is how to turn the heavily subsidized Housing Authority into a profitable machine.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III has some ideas. He has rented out roof space at 16 senior citizen towers to cellular telephone companies. He is trying to sell the audiovisual services of the Housing Authority-owned cable studio to private businesses. And he hopes to cut losses by renting and selling public housing units to working families.

Only 12 percent of the tenants in the Housing Authority's 16,000 units live solely on their wages; the rest receive some form of public assistance. Mr. Henson's ambitious goal is to increase the share of working families in public housing to 70 percent. He thinks this can be done by offering units that are competitive with the private sector.

At the $105 million Pleasant View Gardens development (formerly Lafayette Courts) near the main post office, 27 townhouses are to be sold to homeowners. At the Terraces (formerly Lexington Terrace), 100 of the townhouses to be built this summer will be offered at prices starting at $47,000. The idea is to mix homeowners with renters, wage earners with subsidized tenants.

In seeking to become profitable, the Housing Authority is also reviewing rents. Planning documents do not say this outright, but the implication is that more tenants who do not pay full rent will be given Section 8 vouchers from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. That way, they no longer will be the Housing Authority's budget responsibility and will have to find subsidized apartments from private landlords.

As the Housing Authority begins to change, many of its 1,600 employees will be affected. They have been attending daylong workshops on the changes.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched public housing in 1937, the intent was to provide temporary housing for families in financial straits. Screening was strict; tenants had to be employed. After World War II, the character of public housing gradually changed. A typical tenant in Baltimore currently regards it as permanent housing, is on public assistance, pays an average of $150 in monthly rent and has a net average annual income of $6,157.

The stricter rules that Mr. Henson is introducing, along with more desirable units, are exactly the kinds of steps that are needed to get rid of the stigma of public housing. If senior citizens, for example, are assured that their buildings truly are for the elderly and they are not terrorized by young drug addicts and thugs, public housing may gradually regain the good reputation it once enjoyed.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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