Why are 10 additional poor families 10 too many for Northeast Baltimore's Hamilton neighborhood, an area struggling to maintain the middle-class way of life it has long enjoyed?
Last week, away from television cameras that showed hundreds of Hamilton residents cursing city officials over the plan to move public housing residents into their neighborhoods, people who live along the Harford and Belair Road corridors explained why the idea disturbs them.
According to Mayor Martin O'Malley - who cautioned that social problems spring from poverty and not from race - Northeast Baltimore has already absorbed more than 200 former residents of recently demolished public housing in the past four years.
Census projections for 2000 indicate that Northeast Baltimore is approximately 62 percent white and 36 percent black, according to the city planning department.
But white or black, people who have never owned and maintained homes "come out and they don't work, they don't cut the grass, they don't do a thing," complained Fred "Dutch" Walter.
Walter, 78, an Air Force veteran, has called Hamilton home all his life. He lives on Gibbons Avenue in a 160-year-old house, a grand white structure with black shutters and a huge linden tree rising from a sea of German ivy in the front yard.
Turning a handful of area homes into housing subsidized by the federal government offends Walter's sense of how a just society operates. He said his father worked a bread truck for 16 hours a day to support a wife and six children.
"The main thing is, people ought to work," said Walter, adding that he has seen this ethos wane during his lifetime. "Nobody gave us a damn dime."
Walter, who is white, maintains that although the families who will be moved are black, race has nothing to do with his opposition to the housing plan.
"I have nothing against the blacks - they've got the right to live where they want, same as you and me," said Walter. "But the principle of [the housing proposal] is bad. It's unfair to the taxpayer."
At HARBEL, a Northeast community group that has kept its members up to date on the housing issue, the message is similar: Community anger is focused not on race - after all, poor people come in all colors - but on class and community sovereignty.
"Thirty years ago, you could have said [race was the issue]. I don't think you can say it today," said HARBEL President Jack Ray, who is white.
A major source of Hamilton residents' anger, Ray said, is the city's failure to consult the neighborhood. HARBEL Executive Director Naomi Benyowitz said residents fear property values will decline if the former public housing residents are irresponsible.
"How do these new families know to be part of a community? They've never had to do that before," Benyowitz said. "They have no stake whatsoever. The city is going to take care of all those nitty-gritty [home-maintenance] concerns, and that's unfair to the people next door, who have had to pay for everything."
City officials say tenants would attend workshops on home upkeep and neighborhood values before they move and would receive counseling afterward.
A private management company would collect their rent and be responsible for ensuring that properties are maintained, city officials said.
Richard Marsiglia is a HARBEL board member who owns an appliance and janitorial supply store in the Hamilton shopping district in the 5500 block of Harford Road. He also is president of the local business association.
"People have dealt with HUD and Section 8 [residents] for so long," Marsiglia said. "There was a burnt-out HUD house next door to the school" where residents gathered Tuesday to protest the housing plan before O'Malley announced the city would return to federal court in an effort to have the relocation plan amended.
Brent Flickinger, executive director of the Harford Road Partnership, applauded O'Malley's tact in arguing that Northeast has absorbed its share of the dislocated poor.
"If you live and work in Baltimore City, you know a foreclosed, vacant house can make a neighborhood more fragile," Flickinger said.
Still, much of the debate is grounded in perceptions.
Hamilton resident Jeff Barnes said the low-income housing proposal would lower property values in an area struggling to remain middle-class in the midst of middle-class flight from the city.
When asked exactly how poor people would bring down property values, the unemployed Barnes didn't know. "I've never really lived near [public] housing," he said.
Such assumptions have been countered by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which negotiated the relocation plan with the housing department.
Yet the free housing plan still rankles people.
"I happen to live next door to a HUD house, and I pay my taxes every year," said Kim Hom, who works at the Hamilton News Mart. "I don't want to live next to someone who has everything handed to them."
A few blocks south of the News Mart, St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church anchors the neighborhood.
Kathryn Schmid, an administrative assistant in the parish, has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years. She immediately raised the race issue.
"I don't care if blacks move in, as long as they own their property and keep it up like the rest of us," Schmid said. "You have to own something to take pride in it."
Like many Hamilton residents, she believes her community is being subjected to something that would never be forced upon more affluent areas.
"This hit a terrible nerve," said St. Dominic pastor, the Rev. George B. Loskarn. "People are united. They're angry. I've never seen Hamilton so united on anything."
Sun staff writer Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.