City housing in rut dug by money and poverty

April 03, 2001|By Michael Olesker

OVER LUNCH in Little Italy, Catherine Pugh nods toward the remains of the Flag House Courts high-rise projects a few blocks away, now improved from their previous incarnation as a warehouse of human beings into neat piles of rubble. Pugh represents West Baltimore in the City Council. Some would say she is out of her jurisdiction. Others, she worries, would say she is out of her mind.

"God, the public's gonna kill me for saying this," she says.

Precisely which public, she does not have to enunciate. It's the public stuck in the financial mud, and the federal mindset. It's the public that feels neglected, that thinks City Hall pays too much attention to bringing corporations and high-tech businesses and middle-class residents -- taxpayers, all -- back into town, and overlooks the needy.

Pugh represents a lot of those people. West Baltimore, heavily poor, heavily African-American, instinctively suspicious of those in power and much beleaguered by crime and drugs, wants help. A federal audit, issued late last week, says they have a pretty good point.

The audit calls the city's Section 8 rent-subsidy program "barely functional" and charges that it misspent at least $1 million in public funds while forfeiting $124 million in federal money. That money might have been used to place poor families into affordable housing.

Catherine Pugh feels their pain. But her ambivalence is clear about building new housing for the poor -- whether in her west-side home district or the east side's Flag House rubble that divides Little Italy from the remains of Lombard Street's corned beef row.

"We have to stop thinking so much about housing for the poor," Pugh says. "Every housing program can't be low income. If it is, then our philosophy is that poor people will be poor forever and that they're never coming out of it. I would hope that's not the case. I would think we'd want people to do better -- and that people who live in subsidized housing would want to do better. Public housing should not be lifelong."

For the city, it sometimes seems a lifelong state of mind that more and more low-income housing has to be built. But it perpetuates a gloomy cycle. Every time the mayor or housing officials head for Annapolis for the annual ritual of begging and pleading for state money, they point out -- truthfully -- that the city is home to an overwhelmingly high percentage of the state's elderly, its indigent, its infirm.

And then they say: Give us money so we can continue taking care of them.

"We have to create middle-income communities," Pugh was saying now. "And upper middle-class communities. And gated communities. And communities like Cross Keys. We have the infrastructure, and we have developers who would do it."

Then why isn't it done?

"Because we can get federal money if we spend it on the poor," Pugh says. "It's easy money. The problem is, it's self-perpetuating money. We complain that we have all the poor, but we simultaneously say, `Hey, we can get federal money for the poor.' So we get the money, and we hold onto all the poor.

"But look what else we can do. Look at Canton, look at Federal Hill. They've got million-dollar homes there now. Because people believed in those places."

On the site of the former Flag House Courts projects, there has been much talk of mixed-income housing. Meaning, a range that includes well-to-do as well as subsidized. Some argue that such a mix will not work and has not worked when tried elsewhere.

Pugh agrees. Some see the argument containing layers of racial history -- that low-income housing is a scrap tossed to blacks who might otherwise argue that developers are ignoring them.

But it's yesteryear's argument, presuming that there isn't a black middle class and that there aren't well-to-do blacks and whites who would be comfortable living together -- but that they would shy away from sinking considerable money into neighborhoods where low-income housing is built-in.

Last month, in a letter to the editor of this newspaper, Pugh said the city has to "make a commitment to reconfiguring our city ... because among Baltimore's greatest losses are its once-notable middle and upper-income African-American families. These people are fleeing the city in droves for new single-family homes in Randallstown, Owings Mills and Columbia.

"Why? One reason is the city's housing stock, which has not kept up with the increasing incomes of African-Americans who desire a two-car garage and a house you can walk around. ... Whites are leaving the city, too, and for the same reason."

It's not that Pugh wants to ignore the poor; it's that we've ignored everyone else for so long that they've slipped out of town -- leaving the city numerically depleted, broke and in search of new housing ideas that might welcome them back.

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