As Mayor Catherine Pugh wrestles with record crime rates and vacant houses, she has added another item to her to-do list: Ridding Baltimore's thousands of public housing units of rats.
The mayor gathered the heads of several departments and a dozen other officials at City Hall on Wednesday to announce the Healthy Elimination of All Pests Longterm, or HEAL. The program was scheduled to start that afternoon at Douglass Homes, a complex of nearly 400 units in East Baltimore.
Public housing complexes across the city have long been treated for pests, a widespread nuisance that tenants loathe. Pugh said her program will take a new approach by improving the collaboration between the Housing Authority, the Department of Public Works and the Department of Health, a strategy similar to the one she has touted to fight crime.
"Instead of just doing this today and that tomorrow, everybody gets to work together," the mayor said. "That's what government should be doing."
Treatment starts next week at Perkins Homes in East Baltimore. Resident Tanetta Wilson says she's seen rats regularly over the last 15 years. Watching the vermin scurry on the grounds outside, she said, is "pretty scary. It's disgusting. It's unsanitary."
"That's been a problem here for plenty of years," Wilson said. "It seems like it's getting a little better, but every so many years, they have to redo" their approach.
"We can't get rid of all of the rodents, that's impossible. But this is worth a shot."
The problem is serious, the city says. A flier being distributed to public housing tenants warns that rats, mice and cockroaches carry disease and can make asthma and other illnesses worse.
Baltimore's decades-long battle against rats has been captured in the documentary "Rat Film". The vermin has become a kind of unofficial, grimy mascot for the city.
Pugh's predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also took efforts to drive back the rodents. She spent taxpayer money on large, durable trash cans to keep rats from feasting on people's garbage and boosted the size of the city's anti-rat crews.
A public works spokesman said the citywide approach is bringing down the number of rat complaints across Baltimore.
"By treating rats on and around [the public housing] properties and working with residents to help eliminate sources of food and shelter for rats, we'll continue to drive down rat complaints," spokesman Jeffrey Raymond said.
Joe Rohr, chief attorney of Maryland Legal Aid's housing and consumer law unit, said complaints of vermin infestations in public housing remain widespread. In many cases, he said, there appears to be no regular extermination schedule, and pest control efforts have seemed to be triggered only when tenants complain.
The problem is most pervasive at the older complexes, he said.
Under the program Pugh rolled out Wednesday, the city's 16 city public housing developments will receive rodent and cockroach treatment by a private contractor quarterly and be inspected by teams from the public works Rat Rubout unit three times a year.
Code enforcement crews and others from public works will clean storm drains and other areas around public housing developments. The program will be highlighted at tenant council meetings, where officials will tell residents how they can contribute.
The city will use about $200,000 from a federal grant for the effort over the next year, in addition to funding services already paid for in the budgets of the agencies involved.
City housing spokeswoman Tania Baker said the new approach focuses on "coordination, consistency and comprehensiveness." In the past, she said, roach extermination was conducted on a 60- to 90-day cycle, and infestations of rats and mice were addressed in response to requests by tenants and staff. The Housing Authority conducted one-time rat treatments at several complexes two years ago.
"We will continue until we have eliminated rats, mice, and roaches from public housing," Baker said.
Janet Abrahams, executive director of the city Housing Authority, said she was "extremely pleased" to be announcing the effort.
"The HEAL program will definitely help our residents," she said. "It's part of our vision to create a healthy environment for our residents to live in."
Abrahams said public housing residents have often refused service from pest control contractors. She said officials would try to get access to every room in every apartment, and also treat crawlspaces and basements.
The flier for residents urges them to help.
"Please cooperate … and encourage your neighbors to cooperate," it reads. "We need to eliminate pests from all housing units to be successful."
Eric Booker, an official in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said workers will visit private homes near the public developments to look for rat burrows and trash left out improperly.
"It is not our intention to cite people," Booker said. "We're not interested in your money. What we're interested in is you putting out your trash properly so we can eliminate the food source for the rats."
Ella Broadway, president of the Housing Authority's resident advisory board, said tenants' problems with rats had been "overlooked for a while."
"This is an exciting time," she said. "This is a time that the residents and the youth looked for because of the asthma, the rats, the trash and everything.
"We are working together and we are looking forward to results in this campaign."
Roxanne German, a tenant at Perkins Homes for about six years, said fighting vermin, including fleas and rats, is an ongoing battle. She is anxious to see city workers take on a greater role.
"I do all I can to prevent them from coming in," she said. "They should do more. It would make our lives a little more comfortable."