City's public housing becomes uneasy mix

Younger, disabled residents frighten the aged

October 08, 2006|By Tom Waldron | Tom Waldron,Special to The Sun

Earlier this year, the worst fear of many people who live in Baltimore's public housing high-rises was realized when, according to police, , a 51-year-old man with a disability who was a new resident of Brentwood Apartments fatally stabbed a 73-year-old resident who had lived there for several years.

The two men were neighbors on the building's 11th floor and had argued about alcohol use sometime before the March 21 stabbing, according to police. The younger man had a criminal record, including a 1999 conviction for assault and a March 2004 conviction for misdemeanor cocaine possession.

But city housing officials maintain that nothing in the man's criminal record precluded him from living in a public housing building that used to be for seniors only.

The stabbing brought into focus a serious problem in the city's public housing high-rises. A few years ago, these men would not have been neighbors. The Brentwood building used to house only elderly residents. But a series of changes in federal laws and regulations meant changes in Brentwood and other public housing projects.

The result: Two groups of residents -- the elderly and younger people with disabilities -- are attempting, often uneasily, to live together.

Formerly all-senior facilities now have a fast-growing population of younger disabled people. The change has brought with it a troubling culture clash that hits older residents hardest. These problems have received scant attention from policymakers and the broader community.

Inside these "mixed-population" high-rises, many seniors are distressed by what they say is increased drug dealing, drinking and panhandling blamed on the younger residents and their guests. Some seniors rarely venture out of their apartments.

James Jackson, an eight-year resident of the West 20th Street mixed-population building, despairs that it has become home to some drug addicts and alcoholics. Drug dealing is obvious, and some residents drink alcohol in elevators or hallways, he says.

"These young people don't have respect for senior citizens," Jackson says. "That is bad when you don't feel safe in your own home."

Drug use and heavy drinking are also apparent. At the Claremont building in East Baltimore, according to two elderly residents, the older population is routinely bothered by younger residents and their visitors who knock on doors asking for money or cigarettes. One senior resident put a succinct sign on her door -- "Don't knock on my door" -- even if that means cutting her off from her neighbors.

Elizabeth Holloman, 79 and blind, who has lived in Lakeview Towers near Druid Hill Park for a quarter-century, has grown weary of disrespectful younger tenants and their guests repeatedly asking for money, drinking and using drugs in and out of the building. Some sell drugs in the stairwells, she says. "I feel threatened because I don't know what they will try to do," she says.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has 20 of these so-called mixed-population buildings, including familiar landmarks such as the Lakeview Towers, the West 20th Street building and Govans Manor on York Road. These apartments were originally built for senior citizens, but changes in federal law and increased attention to the needs of people with disabilities mean they now house a far broader population.

Today, more than a third of the occupied apartments in these buildings are home to people under the age of 62 with disabilities. In two of the buildings -- the Lakeview Towers -- a majority of the occupied apartments are home to such tenants. These are people under 62 -- sometimes many years younger -- who are deemed disabled under federal law and regulations. Some have physical challenges; others have mental disabilities or mental illnesses or are recovering alcoholics and drug users.

The problems that accompany this change in demographics are readily apparent. One veteran employee of the housing authority calls the conditions in some of the buildings "horrible."

The issues facing residents of mixed-population buildings have been apparent in the public housing arena since the 1980s, and have arisen in public housing in many places in the country. Some communities took aggressive steps to deal with the problems several years ago. New programs were developed to bring the different population groups together. Some states and cities also dedicated resources to the effort.

In Baltimore, however, housing authority leaders avoided the problem for years by essentially ignoring federal rules during the 1990s that required them to allow younger people with disabilities to move into senior-only housing. Finally, a crackdown by federal housing authorities led to a flood of younger people with disabilities moving into Baltimore's high-rises in recent years.

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