Mayor Martin O'Malley silenced an angry crowd of Northeast Baltimore residents gathered last night to vent their outrage over a proposal to move public housing tenants into middle-class neighborhoods by announcing that the city is going back to federal court to ask for a new plan.
O'Malley arrived late for the meeting in the Hamilton Middle School auditorium, where more than 800 frustrated residents had earlier shouted down housing and community officials.
The meeting was held to explain a court decree that requires that up to 40 public housing rental units be placed in neighborhoods, including at least 10 houses in Northeast Baltimore, as part of a plan to disperse the city's poor.
O'Malley received a standing ovation when he stepped onto the stage, and he quickly neutralized the crowd by promising to go back before a federal judge. He wants the court to take into account the hundreds of public housing units already scattered throughout city neighborhoods, he said.
"Don't put a noose around our neck and tie us to some reality when our neighborhoods have already changed," O'Malley said.
In an interview last night before the meeting, O'Malley said he wants to amend the federal consent decree worked out in 1996 between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union.
"We've been struggling with how to get out from under this decree," he said. "There should have been ... language that we should use every means at the Housing Authority to accomplish the ends of the decree."
The mayor said the decree does not take into account the city's recent efforts to give public housing residents a better quality of life.
The focus of the crowd's anger was a city plan - part of the decree - to acquire and renovate 40 properties scattered throughout Baltimore for public housing residents. Ten of the first 15 properties are in Northeast Baltimore.
City Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne desperately tried to calm the crowd and ease their fears, but could not.
"Remember, this is a proposal. You'll have plenty of time to comment," she said, before being shouted down.
Fred "Dutch" Walter summed up the feelings of many in attendance.
"I've lived in Hamilton since 1922 and I've seen it deteriorate," said Walter, 78. "This is not helping us one bit."
About 250 Northeast Baltimore residents milled outside the meeting, angry that they could not get inside. The meeting was originally scheduled for Monday but had to be canceled after hundreds of residents tried to force their way into a 200-person-capacity room at the Harford Center for Senior Citizens. Police turned away about 200 people, and organizers decided to move the meeting to Hamilton Middle School. They had thought the school's auditorium would be able to hold 1,200 people.
O'Malley said he understood the residents' frustration over the plan.
"Frankly, I think the people of Northeast Baltimore and Patterson Park have shouldered quite a lot of the responsibility for addressing this problem," he said before the meeting.
O'Malley pointed to the use of federal housing programs, such as the use of Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers, as examples of the city's recent successes in dispersing the poor. The voucher program allows low-income residents to find houses on their own.
During the tenure of former Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, hundreds of poor families were moved into homes throughout the city, including Northeast Baltimore, said O'Malley.
"We've accomplished far more in these last four years with the Section 8 vouchers than what these 40 scattered sites could accomplish," he said. "It's almost like we're not supposed to get any credit for the vouchers, and that's not right."
The worries of those in Northeast Baltimore are merely the latest chapter in the city's struggle to deal with its widespread poverty.
Dave Desmaris, president of the Moravia-Walther Community Association, said the area already has more than its share of Section 8 residents.
"There's a lot of pent-up anger going back a number of years," he said. "The neighborhood has problems."
The city's $4.1 million proposal is part of a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 1995.
The ACLU'S case was intended to break the concentration of poverty in Baltimore, home to nearly two-thirds of the families on public assistance in Maryland.
In its suit, the ACLU charged the city had intentionally segregated poor, black families in dilapidated public housing projects. The decree was intended to move those residents into neighborhoods throughout the city and the surrounding counties.
The court decree requires that the city move poor families into neighborhoods with a minority population less than 26 percent, a poverty rate below 10 percent and subsidized housing below 5 percent.
The idea is to put the families in neighborhoods that would provide a better life. In all, the consent decree requires that 2,100 public housing units be developed in the city and surrounding five counties.