Who will house Baltimore's poor?

Housing Authority: Despite long waiting lists, half of 2,800 scattered-site public housing units are vacant.

November 24, 2001

BALTIMORE'S highly publicized -- and seemingly successful -- drive to replace subsidized high-rises with new communities has a dark flip side: The rest of the city's public housing effort is a mess.

Half of the Housing Authority's 2,800 scattered-site rowhouses are vacant.

Most of those units are vandalized; many are open to the elements.

Meanwhile, several aging low-rise complexes -- including Claremont Homes, O'Donnell Heights and McCulloh Homes -- are in poor shape and cursed with vacancies, even though 5,278 Baltimoreans are on a waiting list for public housing units.

Indeed, Baltimore's public housing needs are so dire that Commissioner Paul T. Graziano is talking about possibly submitting a staggering $150 million bond issue for voters' approval.

"We need to have a clear strategic plan," he recently told the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.

In a frank and wide-ranging speech, he suggested the chaotic Housing Authority he inherited had improved in some ways during his first year.

But he made it clear -- and questions from the landlords underscored the point -- that major challenges remain.

Convinced that the occupied rowhouse units are troublesome enough to maintain, Mr. Graziano wants to write off the vacant ones.

This is the way he plans to do it:

At least 300 rowhouses will be demolished, and "maybe 100" will be sold to public housing tenants as home-ownership units. The balance will be turned over "to some entity with a viable revitalization plan."

This sounds like a bureaucratic ploy to clear the books and pass the buck.

How could any outside developer turn the Housing Authority's widely scattered vandalized rowhouses into well-managed successes in rundown neighborhoods?

Where would the money come from for rehabilitation?

It would be unfair to hold Mr. Graziano, a former New York housing official, responsible for the dire scattered housing situation that got out of hand under Robert W. Hearn and Daniel P. Henson III. But his approach does nothing to shore up the neighborhoods where the city's dereliction contributed to deterioration.

Mr. Graziano, though, has a more pressing priority: ending the bureaucratic paralysis that had rendered the once-efficient Housing Authority barely functional.

That agency has been rapidly declining for more than a decade.

A turnaround seemed in the cards when Baltimore began razing troubled public housing high-rises under Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. But amid all the hoopla about dramatic demolitions, a profound change was easily ignored.

The public housing inventory was being reduced.

Instead of acting as landlord, the Housing Authority was giving tenants Section 8 certificates and asking them to find replacement housing that was privately owned and managed.

The Housing Authority was totally unprepared to handle the huge amount of paperwork that this fundamental policy shift produced.

Suddenly, 14,954 people were enrolled as Section 8 rent subsidy recipients and another 14,331 were on a waiting list for them.

Clerks, keeping the ledgers manually, fell behind not only in processing tenant applications but issued monthly rent checks to the landlords up to three months late.

Mr. Graziano's first order of business was to end this "tremendous mess."

He obtained technical assistance from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal is to revamp the Housing Authority.

"Every single" employee is to be retrained. Effective tenant counseling is to be introduced, including troubleshooting and intervention.

If this sounds familiar, there is a reason. During his tenure as housing commissioner, Mr. Henson constantly talked about reinventing the Housing Authority.

He, too, reorganized and held training sessions.

Mr. Henson won praise for his efforts from HUD, which described Baltimore's Housing Authority as much improved.

Now that same HUD, albeit under a different Washington administration, is again trying to make the bureaucracy functional.

Baltimore's housing commissioner has traditionally also headed the Housing Authority. Many other cities have separated those demanding tasks.

Considering the city's current public housing crisis, Mayor Martin O'Malley should consider redefining Mr. Graziano's duties.

His expertise is in Housing Authority matters, which consume most of his time.

Perhaps that should be his full-time job.

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