30 low-income rent units cost city $7 million

Housing: Buying and fixing up vacant houses to scatter subsidized tenants among middle-class neighborhoods proves expensive.

March 20, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials are spending nearly $7 million to quietly buy and renovate 30 homes in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods for use as public housing rental units - an effort to comply with a longstanding federal court order.

The purchase and renovations, done by a nonprofit housing group and paid for with federal and state funds, average out to $231,583 per house - more than twice last year's average sale price of a city home.

Acknowledging that there are cheaper ways to provide public housing, city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said rehab costs averaging about $80,000 per unit were driven by federal regulations, ranging from lead paint abatement to historical preservation, and by the decision to install new roofs and heating systems to lower future maintenance costs.

"It's fairly expensive but I don't think it's exorbitant," he said of the program. "I think we're getting value for our money. When you're trying to get into some markets that are healthy markets, you're going to pay more for it."

Because a similar but smaller program was scuttled four years ago after a community uproar, housing officials discussed this program with neighborhood leaders beforehand but until recently refused to publicly disclose many details.

Unlike the previously abandoned program, which was confined to the Northeast, the initiative includes properties spread through two dozen communities, ranging from Medfield in North Baltimore to Morrell Park in Southwest.

Both programs were undertaken to comply with a partial consent decree in a discrimination lawsuit against the city and HUD that sought to give public housing residents - almost all of them black - a chance to move out of impoverished neighborhoods.

Potential residents have begun to be notified about the availability of the first few units, said Vincent P. Quayle, head of the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, which has been buying and renovating the properties. The nonprofit hopes to have 21 units ready by June, with the rest available by August.

Priority is being given to former tenants of the city's demolished public housing high-rises. Among them is Isaac Neal, who has been living in a Section 8 rental unit in Patterson Park with his wife and three children since Lafayette Courts was torn down in 1995.

"I feel really excited now," Neal said. "My wife said, `Until we get the keys in our hands, it's still just waiting.'"

"This is about opportunities," he added. "Hopefully, families can move into houses of their choice and be accepted."

30 percent of income

As in other public housing properties, tenants will pay about 30 percent of their monthly income for rent. The Housing Authority says it anticipates paying subsidies of about $450 per house per month toward maintaining the properties.

In several communities where the homes are, neighbors said they were unaware they were being readied for public housing residents. Their reactions are mixed.

In Medfield in North Baltimore, work recently began on a two-story rowhouse on a quiet street. The house has been vacant since a fire two years ago destroyed its interior.

"I don't care who lives there as long as they're nice people," said Ron McCotter, a grocery store clerk who lives next door.

"It's got to be better than what we've been living through for two years," added his wife, Kathleen. "I hope it's somebody who appreciates that they're being given help and that they maintain it."

Signs of resentment

In Brewer's Hill in Southeast Baltimore, settlement was recently completed for a home foreclosed on by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on a traditional Baltimore block of narrow rowhouses with white marble steps.

"This is ridiculous," said Marylouise Allen, who three years ago moved back to the neighborhood she and her husband, James, left in 1968 when he was transferred by General Motors to Michigan. "It was becoming a nice neighborhood again and they're doing this."

Public policy analysts also are split over the program's merits.

"You can measure the fiscal abuse by how many people could be housed with that money if it was spent more sensibly," said Ronald D. Utt, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "You could have done a helluva lot more houses than 30."

"You're wasting money for token integration," he said. "What's 30 families in a metro area of 2.5 million people?"

But Greg Duncan, director of the Joint Center for Poverty Research at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, argues that the costs of the program should be weighed against the potential gains of poor families moving to better neighborhoods.

"At some level, we should be trying out policies that directly address not only economic but also racial segregation," he said. "There are potential benefits to the families moving and the benefit of promoting racial understanding on the part of whites and blacks."

Purchase, renovation

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