Housing authority faulted

Abell Foundation says agency has `abandoned its mission'

September 30, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

A scathing report from The Abell Foundation on public housing in Baltimore suggests that the city's housing authority has "abandoned its mission to house the poor" by focusing on the demolition of properties instead of providing new housing.

The report, to be published today on The Abell Foundation's Web site, says the number of occupied public housing units in the city has declined by 42 percent in the past 15 years - from 16,525 to 9,625. The report says the authority's plans for new housing are "unclear."

"On its seventieth anniversary, the Housing Authority - once on a mission to replace slums with safe homes for Baltimore's poor - is now in the demolition business," wrote Joan Jacobson, author of the Abell report, "The Dismantling of Baltimore's Public Housing." The nonprofit focuses on expanding opportunities for the disenfranchised.

City housing officials also came under criticism last week for their plans to use a $59 million affordable housing fund, created to provide homes for the poor and working class, to instead demolish units at 15 sites.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City called the report "deeply flawed and biased" in a lengthy response that will also be posted the Abell Web site. The authority says the report does not take into sufficient account huge cuts in federal funding in the past six years, in which $79 million was cut from the authority's budget, as well as court orders that have made it harder to build new public housing.

And Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said demolition is necessary to eliminate blight and make way for new housing. He said plans are in place for 3,700 housing units in mixed-income developments.

"I think there is a failure to recognize that in order to create the viable mixed-income communities that our residents deserve, we need to tear down some of the old," he said. The projects that have been torn down, he said, are not decent places for anyone to live.

"These are not places where I feel good about the young children of the city growing up," Graziano said. "We have to eliminate those horrible enclaves in order to create opportunities for new, viable, healthy mixed-income communities."

The Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. commissioned the report after he was struck by the number of vacant public housing units in the city when so many people are in need of housing. The housing authority has a waiting list of 32,000 households for public housing or Section 8 rental certificates. Embry said he wanted to raise awareness of housing problems in Baltimore.

"It will focus public attention on the issue and get people thinking about what might be done," he said. "The federal government has taken a major step back in addressing this issue. And it's not even part of the presidential candidate debates."

Federal funding for public housing fell by 25 percent from 1999 to 2006, after adjusting for inflation, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Nationwide, the center says, 170,000 public housing units have been lost in the past decade to deterioration and decay.

In Baltimore, housing advocates say development deals for sites where public housing is being demolished will result in fewer low-income units than before demolition, creating a net loss in housing. "You just get deeper and deeper into the hole," said Barbara Samuels, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, who works on housing issues.

"I think in some ways the situation is actually worse than it's portrayed" in the Abell report, Samuels said. "Baltimore needs a housing department that makes fewer excuses and gets more accomplished."

Jacobson's report was the result of four months of work in which she reviewed hundreds of documents, visited public housing sites and interviewed local and federal housing officials. Jacobson covered housing for The Sun and The Evening Sun from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

"It was really sad to see so much gone and so many options for the poor disappearing," she said. "So much public housing is being eliminated and not replaced. If you go through the slums of Baltimore, they're far worse than they were 20 years ago."

The housing authority says it has made up for the loss in public housing units with Section 8 rental certificates that can be used to obtain subsidized housing in the private sector. The number of Section 8 recipients has nearly doubled, to 12,000, in the past 15 years, the authority said.

But the Abell report says the Section 8 certificates are not an adequate substitute for more permanent housing. The Section 8 certificates are difficult to use because many landlords require security deposits and credit checks. Also, many rentals fail inspection, forcing the tenants to move.

The report suggests that the state pass a fair-housing law that requires landlords to accept Section 8 certificates, similar to laws already in place in Montgomery and Howard counties. Graziano said he would support such a law.

Twelve other recommendations are included in the report, such as convening a group of developers, city officials and housing experts to study public housing and report back to the city; adopting a "one-for-one" replacement policy for units demolished; holding public hearings to persuade reluctant neighborhoods to welcome low-income housing; and maintaining public housing projects so they will not have to be razed in the future.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

The full report and the Housing Authority's response can be read on The Abell Foundation's Web site at www.abell.org.

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