Getting rid of high-rise projects?


Poor families with children should not be housed in high-rises. It's a cry that has echoed across the country for years.

The towers are notorious for violence and vandalism. Filth -- including discarded scraps of food and dirty diapers -- makes life almost unbearable. And drug dealers use the secluded hallways as safe havens from police.

Public housing officials complain that the security and maintenance costs make high-rise buildings the most costly to manage. In the 1980s in cities such as Chicago, Newark, N.J., and St. Louis, those complaints turned into action with officials calling the buildings "inhumane reservations" that were dilapidated beyond repair and ordering them demolished.

And now a public task force in Baltimore has announced an extremely ambitious proposal to move 2,000 families out of all 18 of the city's public high-rise buildings and into low-rise units of their choice. The towers at Lafayette Courts, Flag House Courts, Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes would then be converted into apartments for low- to moderate-income adults over 55 years of age.

Endorsement of the task force's goals by top city officials -- including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke -- and public housing tenant leaders is almost unanimous.

Yet several obstacles -- including working around strict federal regulations, securing funds from already strapped state and local governments and defeating public misconceptions -- may prevent the proposal from ever becoming reality.

The task force -- which included high-rise tenants, city politicians, housing advocates, attorneys and education officials -- was established in February by Robert W. Hearn, executive director of the Baltimore Housing Authority. Its mission was to determine the best use for more than $100 million in federal funds that the housing authority expects to receive over the next 10 years for renovations to the high-rises.

During their meetings, task force members concluded that $100 million would not be enough to renovate the high-rises, keep them in good condition and provide adequate social services so desperately needed by tenants -- largely young single mothers with at least two children under the age of 12, who live on less than $6,000 a year in welfare.

So, they decided a drastic change had to be made, and they hope that officials of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development can be persuaded to cooperate.

Although housing officials have yet to work out the details of the task force proposal, they have had some thoughtful discussions on how to achieve the goals.

The most formidable hurdle will be changing strict federal housing regulations.

"We don't expect HUD to be cheering us on every step of the way," said Mr. Hearn. "But we felt that we should not let that stop us from our goals to provide more suitable housing for our families."

First, in relocating the families out of the high-rises, the housing authority must identify adequate low-rise units, including publicly owned and subsidized row houses.

Relocation of the families could take two to three years for each of the four complexes because officials estimate that only about 250 low-rise units are vacated each year, and the high-rise tenants would be able to choose the type and location of their new dwelling.

Margaret E. Williams, a housing authority official, says that the status of the 30,000 families on the public housing waiting list should not be affected by the project because as the high-rises are vacated, the authority will be building replacement units.

In 1987, after several court battles in which low-income housing advocates sued HUD for demolishing high-rises without building equal number of new dwellings, a new regulation mandated a one-for-one replacement.

That means that the Baltimore Housing Authority would be required to replace the 2,234 high-rise apartments being vacated by families. Officials estimate that it would cost more than $150 million to do that.

To accomplish the relocation and construction of replacement units, Ms. Williams said the housing authority would apply for federal funds.

In recent years, HUD has funded very few projects to build new dwellings. But the housing appropriations bill passed during the last congressional session set aside money for the construction of 10,000 new public housing units nationwide.

Federal officials, however, may insist that there is no need to replace Baltimore's high-rise units. After all, the dank, filthy buildings may be in need of repair, but local officials agree that they are structurally sound.

At this point, housing authority officials said, they would seek legislative action in order to use annual modernization funds -- which might otherwise be used to renovate the high-rises -- to build the replacement dwellings.

"Currently there isn't the flexibility to use [modernization] funds to build new units," said Thomas R. Hobbs, a member of the Baltimore task force who was manager of the HUD office in Baltimore from 1978 to 1986. "But that doesn't mean we shouldn't seek that flexibility. Our objectives are appropriate, and we hope that HUD can be convinced."

Once the high-rises were vacated, the housing authority would be faced with the task of finding funds to modernize the towers and convert them into adult-only apartments.

For this, local housing officials said they would turn to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Schmoke and any interested private developers. However, the state is currently facing a budget deficit in excess of $300 million. And the city, in the midst of another tight fiscal year, may be operating on fewer dollars next year in exchange for providing its residents with tax relief.

Another hurdle that housing officials expect to stand in the way of their objectives is public resistance to the relocation of high-rise tenants into racially and economically mixed neighborhoods. But most task force members are cautiously optimistic that that this would not be a problem.

"There are already several thousand [publicly subsidized] households in neighborhoods across Baltimore, and they've remained there without any real problems," said Robert C. Embry Jr., a member of the task force who is a former Baltimore housing commissioner. "So I think what was an issue 15 years ago won't be much of an issue today."

Many high-rise tenants also suspect that the task force's plan only masks the city's desire to move poor people out of the downtown area so that properties can be sold to private developers for condominiums, shopping malls or student housing.

All four high-rise complexes are located in choice areas of town. Flag House Courts and Lafayette Courts tower over Little Italy to the south and the Inner Harbor to the west. Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace are situated off Martin Luther King Boulevard near the University of Maryland.

"I thought they just wanted to kick all the poor families out so the University of Maryland could take over the high-rises for student housing," said Barbara McKinney, a member of the task force who lives at Lexington Terrace. "But the task force wants to be sure that the buildings are used to house low-income adults and that the families in the high-rises get nice homes."

Michael J. Kelly, dean of the University of Maryland Law School and chairman of the task force, reaffirmed that commitment and added, "People think we could sell Flag House for a pretty penny. But we've done the market studies, and that's just not possible."

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