Rats can have sex 21 times a day. A 5-week-old rat can get pregnant and have up to 12 rat babies. Then her babies can have babies. The pesky math: A breeding pair of rats can produce 15,000 offspring in one year, according to experts.
Such calculations haunt Ken Strong, whose job is to eliminate rats in Baltimore’s public housing.
“If we stop, the rats won’t stop,” said Strong, who has been fighting rats in Baltimore since the 1970s. He is now a special assistant with the Housing Authority.
Strong recently faced another challenge: the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the funding mechanism for his rat extermination program — right before President Donald Trump tweeted that parts of Baltimore were a “rat and rodent infested mess.”
In March, the White House proposed eliminating the Community Development Block Grant, which the housing authority uses to pay for its rat-elimination program and other programs.
Baltimore’s rat program, called HEAL, or the Healthy Elimination of All Pests Longterm, has slashed active burrows across Baltimore’s public housing from 1,836 in 2017 when the program began, to 143 as of the timing of Trump’s tweets at the end of July, Strong said.
Calls to 311 for rat-related problems fell 35% from 5,510 in 2017 to 3,575 in 2019, according to the Department of Public Works, which partners with the housing authority for rat exterminations. Over that same time period, 311 calls for rats in Washington, D.C., grew about 47% from 3,750 calls to 5,500, Strong said.
Four months after the Trump administration called for ending the grant program that funds rat extermination in Baltimore, Trump wrote “no human being would want to live there” in a series of tweets criticizing Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district.
Baltimore’s Housing Authority received $300,000 in block grants for HEAL during its first two years of operation. It has applied for an additional $50,000 to keep the program going, according to a Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development spokesperson.
Support to keep the program going is important, Strong said.
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“The successful control of rats has to be consistent," Strong said. "You have to stay on top of them because they spread so quickly and are so resilient.”
The Community Development Block Grant program, which funded $22 million of improvements in Baltimore last year, is incredibly popular across the country. The Nixon administration initiated the federal grant program in the early 1970s as a way to give more local control over federal housing funds. Its main goal is to ensure “decent affordable housing,” but it also provides after-school programs to low-income children and assistance on closing costs to purchase homes.
Currently, every congressional district receives or has access to the program’s funds, according to an April 4 letter written by a bipartisan coalition of Congressional members in reaction to the president’s budget proposal.
Cummings, who was the subject of ridicule in Trump’s tweet storm about Baltimore, signed the letter that urged Congress to retain the grant program’s funding. In the end, Cummings and Congress won. The grant fund was was reinstated in full this summer when Congress passed the appropriations bill.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development still has to approve funding for the rat program this year, according to a city spokesperson. Dr. Ben Carson, Baltimore’s former star surgeon and current secretary of HUD, reportedly had little to say at an April congressional hearing in response to the bipartisan criticism of the administration’s proposed budget cuts.
A spokesperson for the department said the approval of the funding for HEAL is largely administrative; if the program’s funding had been approved in the past, it likely willbe approved again.