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Our view: Including public housing repairs in stimulus package would benefit Baltimore and other cities with aging vacant stock

December 05, 2008

It seems everyone wants a piece of the $700 billion stimulus package. Now come the managers of the nation's public housing authorities, who say renovating their piece of America's infrastructure - thousands of apartments in disrepair - would create jobs, improve communities and provide more low-income housing. But they make a good case for stretching stimulus dollars at a time when people are hurting because of the economy.

Baltimore offers a good example. It has 418 public housing units that are in such bad shape that they can't be rented and federal funds to fix them have been impossible to get. It would cost about $60 million to renovate them and bring them back on line. Most are scattered across the city, but this stock includes the 88-unit Mount Winans apartment building in Southwest Baltimore. This is public housing that can be saved, unlike big deteriorated complexes such as O'Donnell Heights, Claremont Homes and Somerset Courts that couldn't be salvaged.

If stimulus money was available to rehab the city units, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano says, the work could begin within 90 to 120 days. That's a lot sooner than any plan to build new low-income housing.

Public housing colleagues in Boston, Atlanta, Kansas City and other cities have similar inventories of vacant public housing. A 2007 study for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities estimated more than $30 billion in needed repairs, ranging from replacing roofs to remodeling units for energy efficiency.

"Starved" is the word coalition director Sunia Zaterman used to describe the federal government's response to the maintenance needs of the country's 1.2 million units of public housing.

The coalition would like about $5 billion of the federal stimulus package expected from President-elect Barack Obama and Congress. That may be wishful thinking, but roads and bridges aren't the only infrastructure systems that should benefit under this plan. There is a need for more affordable housing, especially for the working poor, and renovating rundown public housing with federal stimulus dollars would help meet that need. It would also put people to work and help rebuild neglected areas of many American cities.

That offers a triple return on the government's investment and, in this economy, that's a proposition tough to ignore.

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