Safe houses

March 09, 2006

Baltimore police on Tuesday stumbled upon five young children left unattended in a rundown apartment in a dilapidated, crime-ridden building with no heat or hot water. Fortunately, the children, who did not live in the building but had spent the night there, were unharmed and showed no signs of abuse. Child protective service workers will likely monitor them for some time, as they should.

But why are people paying rent to live in such appalling conditions? The sad truth the lack of housing that is affordable for poor people in the city gives many of them very little choice.

That local residents are living like this while Baltimore is experiencing a housing boom is an indication that many people are being left behind on the city's comeback trail. It's also a reminder to city housing administrators that decent housing for the poor should be an integral part of Baltimore's aspirations to become a vibrant, economically diverse city.

The Northwest Baltimore building where the children were found is not unique. There are many more like it throughout the city - each with accompanying problems of crime and drug-dealing. These buildings are no places for children, or for that matter, adults. One tenant of the building where the children were found told The Sun that she paid $312 a month in rent, a modest amount that many city residents nonetheless have difficulty paying.

According to a Johns Hopkins University study, about 40,000 low-income city renters live in substandard housing and can barely afford the less than $400 a month that half of all city rentals cost. There are two poor renters for every affordable rental.

Yesterday, city housing officials inspected the Northwest apartment building, which had several outstanding housing code violations and was the subject of repeated police service calls, and found 20 more violations ranging from missing gutters to rotting wood to defective ceilings. The landlord was given 24 hours to get the heat and hot water turned back on or face fines and court actions.

Meanwhile, city police are working with the housing authority's code enforcement office and the state's attorney's office to eventually shut down the building under a program that targets nuisance properties. They should expedite the process and housing officials should ensure tenants get help finding habitable apartments. Such substandard housing problems must be addressed - and fast. Dangerous, decrepit housing is a public safety issue, and not just for the people living there.

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