High-rise anxiety

October 30, 2006

In an otherwise distressing account from the Abell Foundation of life inside Baltimore's once seniors-only public housing high-rises, there is a bright note: When residents work together to build a sense of community - even in the face of declining services and inadequate funding - they are better off.

More than a third of the 3,440 housing units in 20 of the city's public high-rises are occupied by non-elderly low-income Baltimoreans with disabilities. The rest are homes to people over the age of 62, most of whom led productive lives in the workplace or raised families, are now retired and who, getting by on fixed incomes, wish only to grow older among friends in reasonable comfort and peace of mind. That's the least they deserve.

Under federal law and by all that is fair, the disabled and the elderly have the right to live in these buildings. But mingling generations inside the same structures sometimes leads to a clash of cultures. And, according to the Abell report, many seniors routinely complain that their younger neighbors are engaged in noisy or illegal disruptive behavior.

Such everyday activities as using the laundry room or elevators or even going through the lobby can be anxious moments for the elderly, who sometimes choose to stay in their apartments to avoid confrontations. "These young people," said an eight-year resident of West 20th Street, "don't have respect for senior citizens." To be fair, the report also suggests not all the gray-haired residents are angels.

The root of the problems at these mixed-population residences may be that by the time the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which had to be dragged into court to comply with federal housing requirements, agreed in 2004 to open the high-rise doors to the disabled, funding for crucial security and social infrastructure needs began to dry up. Tensions between the residents are aggravated by inadequate mental health services and by too few counselors, whose efforts to develop support systems are strained by their responsibility to serve more than one building.

It is past time to catch up. More money is needed, and as the report concludes, it is unacceptable that staffing levels remain below ratios in private-sector apartment buildings. But money doesn't solve all the problems. With the help of community-based churches, schools, private and nonprofit agencies - and with the inestimable skills of the seniors themselves - it is quite possible for high-rise residents of all ages to forge strong communities within their buildings.

It's happening in some of the high-rises. Volunteers with walkie-talkies patrol the hallways and alert police to illegal activity. Others distribute free food and household necessities. Some organize group dinners and other social activities. High-rise residents who have begun looking out for one another discover that life gets better. They may be renters, but it's called taking ownership.

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