Neighborhoods will test city's success

New thrust: Baltimore hopes to sell itself better to people who pay taxes, demand few services.

February 19, 2000

WHEN Patricia J. Payne is asked how her performance should be measured, the new Baltimore housing chief gives a one-word answer: "Neighborhoods."

One of Baltimore's sad dichotomies in recent decades has been the appalling decay of many established residential neighborhoods even as the Inner Harbor glitters.

The administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley has set out to change this. Its marching orders to Ms. Payne, a former state housing secretary, are to increase efforts to attract and retain middle- and upper-middle-income people who contribute more to the tax base than they use in public services.

This new emphasis is part of a wider re-examination of city housing practices during the 12 years of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration.

Among areas under scrutiny are:

Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore and the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition revitalization project that surrounds the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Those two areas have gobbled up a large chunk of the city's community block grant funding, yet they have shown relatively little progress.

The use of the state's Rental Housing Partnership Program. The city Housing Authority is spending money from that source to build units next to vacant scattered-site buildings for which there are no redevelopment plans. Why?

"Housing investments must be made to promote healthy communities and not merely for constructing new housing units," the O'Malley transition team proclaimed in a policy paper. "There must be a better allocation of resources based upon the likelihood of a successful outcome. Need alone should not be the sole determining factor in deciding where to invest resources."

Daniel P. Henson III, the previous housing commissioner, was an energetic and headstrong man. He achieved a lot, most important the demolition of Baltimore's troubled public housing high-rises. But the haphazard relocation of those tenants destabilized some marginal neighborhoods.

Mr. Henson ran a one-man show. As Ms. Payne begins to shift priorities, her first task ought to be building a strong command structure for both the housing department and the Housing Authority. That is the best way to assure the efficiency and accountability of these critical bureaucracies.

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