Safe housing

March 19, 2004

IN BALTIMORE'S Spanish Town, Latino immigrants crowd into makeshift apartments to live cheaply while working in low-wage day labor jobs. Mostly men who are here alone, they care more about sending money home to their families south of the border than their living conditions. For too long, the situation has been ignored. We can no longer look the other way: A fatal fire in an overcrowded rowhouse on East Baltimore Street shows why.

Two Latino men died in the Feb. 20 blaze. The casualties could have been greater: Nine other Latino men lived there, and some escaped by jumping from a building cornice. The group shared several rooms in the house's upper floors and split the $800 rent.

City officials who, after the fire, hand-delivered 90 smoke detectors to area residences got an eyeful: cut-up apartments, mattresses on floors, blocked exits, electrical hazards. In other words, overcrowded, unsafe living conditions.

Several factors have created these situations. Immigrants, often non-English speakers, can't afford rents in the gentrifying neighborhoods around the Broadway corridor, the heart of Spanish Town. They learn by word of mouth where they can share a room in the company of fellow Latinos. Then there are the landlords who disregard occupancy and zoning laws to rent their properties. They don't ask questions. And immigrant tenants don't complain about conditions for fear of eviction or worse - a call to immigration officials.

Advocates who work with the Latino community have known about these living situations. Neighbors have complained to city officials, who have responded in the past by citing some landlords for housing code violations. But citations alone won't necessarily solve the problem. Landlords of single-family homes receive notice of on-site housing inspections, and by the time an inspector arrives, there is often scant evidence of overcrowded conditions, residents say.

Landlords of rundown housing who exploit immigrants don't serve anyone's interest but their own. What this part of town needs is a version of the old-style boarding house for single men, perhaps run by a coalition of nonprofit groups that work with Latino immigrants.

Since the fire, city officials have met with advocates and church groups. They are exploring rent-subsidy programs and ways to develop "single-room occupancy" housing. Several neighborhood leaders who want to be part of a solution are meeting today with city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano and several members of his staff.

The city should capitalize on their interest. If Baltimore wants to encourage immigrants to settle here, it must find ways to safely and affordably house them.

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