Past failures taint city's dispersal of poor

Dilemma: Host neighborhoods' stability must be assured when public housing tenants move in.

September 28, 2000

RACE, CLASS, lifestyles. Those are the factors that continue to determine much about the metropolitan area's neighborhoods.

Fears and tension erupt whenever governments attempt to alter existing divisions.

Ask Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. He is in the fight of his life after residents of the economically depressed east side felt threatened by a plan that would use the government's condemnation powers to kick-start development.

A similar storm is now brewing in the city. Northeast Baltimore homeowners are up in arms because the O'Malley administration is contemplating scattering welfare families in their blue-collar neighborhoods.

The numbers are small. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City intends to purchase 13 foreclosed houses in Northeast and 27 in other areas. After $70,000 in renovations, each would be occupied by a family on public assistance who would be given counseling and skills training. The homes would be managed by a private company.

The idea is simple -- and the logic difficult on its face to dispute: Give these families a chance to experience something better than high-rise public housing. Resettle them away from concentrations of poverty in the city.

The dispersal plan arises from a federal court case against the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleged government discrimination against public housing tenants. As part of the 1996 settlement, the city agreed to develop 40 public housing units in neighborhoods with a minority population of less than 26 percent, a poverty rate below 10 percent and subsidized housing below 5 percent.

Fewer and fewer neighborhoods meet those standards because the city has lost much of its white, middle-class population in recent decades. The Northeast quadrangle has not been immune: State Sen. Joan Carter Conway argues that areas qualifying for resettlement under the 1990 Census may not in this year's as-yet uncompleted population count.

The Board of Estimates was supposed to approve the purchase of the Northeast area houses last week. At the behest of City Council President Sheila Dixon, a decision was postponed. The matter now seems to be on an indefinite hold.

Whatever eventually happens in this case, the core problem of concentrated poverty will not go away. Nor will the resentment and suspicion that better-off residents feel whenever City Hall attempts to relocate subsidized tenants to their neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the city has a terrible track record in these matters. The Northeast scheme is a case study. City Hall and housing officials failed to keep communities informed, even though similar plans had led to emotional confrontations elsewhere.

Mayor Martin O'Malley now has to deal with this mess -- and a conviction among many Baltimoreans that previous relocations of tenants from demolished public housing high-rises sped the decay of other rowhouse neighborhoods.

This indeed seems to be the case north of Patterson Park. Some years back, the area received an influx of public housing tenants who were given neither counseling nor intervention services. And what happened there essentially repeated the distress of the lower Park Heights neighborhoods three decades earlier.

No real planning was done, no intervention services were offered to ease the way for the hundreds of poor families who flooded the area after they were displaced by expressway construction in the Franklin Street corridor.

You'd think the city would have learned some lessons by now.

Recent studies persuasively argue that given adequate training and counseling, many disadvantaged families thrive after they move away from concentrated poverty.

If that doesn't work and the families' lifestyles are seen as threatening or a nuisance, the neighborhood's stable renters -- who can move most quickly -- may flee. That, in turn, will increase the apprehensions of homeowners whose nest egg is at stake.

Given the fragility of many Baltimore neighborhoods, City Hall has dual obligations here: to help both sets of neighbors.

Recognizing that once a neighborhood deteriorates, returning it to good health is a daunting task, the city must calm residents' fears. It's only common sense that any introduction of scattered-site public housing be accompanied by visible efforts to beef up public services and reinvestment.

As for scattered-site tenants, government alone may not be able to provide the safety net that many need. Churches and other organizations, which could adopt newcomers, also should get involved.

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