Baltimore must move families out of high-rise housing


THE WAY at last seems clear to moving families out of the corrosive environment of the city's high-rise public housing.

So far it's only a consensus arrived at by the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, chaired until recently by Michael J. Kelly, dean of the University of Maryland School of Law. Much remains to be done, but Kelly has worked astutely to get the endorsement of the Schmoke administration and to proceed with detailed planning in consultation with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Why is it important to move families out of the 18 high-rise buildings managed by the city Housing Authority? Because these buildings very likely contribute to the social deficits of many of the children who grow up in them. Those who planned and built these buildings in the 1950s no doubt saw them as way stations for families on the road to a better life. Perhaps such optimism was justified in 1950. It is not in 1991.

An added factor is that the cost of managing, maintaining and securing these buildings far outstrips the combined rental income and federal subsidy available to operate them. Consequently, they are a constant drain on the Housing Authority, taking funds away from programs, such as those for the elderly, that work fairly well.

There is an urgency about what do do with these buildings because the Housing Authority is about to apply to HUD for $100 million or more, to be spent over the next decade, to modernize the 2,000 housing units involved.

So now is the time to ask the question: Is it in the public interest to spend such a large sum to improve these buildings physically without any realistic prospects for resolving their deep-seated management and social problems -- drug use, chronic unemployment, poor security and vandalism.

Most observers agree it is not likely that HUD will want to provide added dollars needed in the long run to provide security for the high-rises. Nor is it likely that any other agencies, federal, state or city, will be able to underwrite the long-term support needed by the mothers and children who live in these buildings. Tragically, expanded day care, drug-abuse counseling, family planning, better health care and recreation, job training and improved education are all casualties of the nation's bankruptcy.

Affordable housing for low-income families in Baltimore is sorely needed, and so there is great concern that nothing be done to diminish the supply of housing or the valuable subsidies that go with it. I hope HUD can be persuaded to replace in annual increments the family units in the high-rise buildings as they are vacated. A part of the incentive for HUD to do this is that the agency would be relieved of the expense of modernization; it would no longer have to subsidize these troublesome properties. What the Housing Authority needs most is HUD's financial support for replacement housing. But such funds are in short supply and much sought after by many other cities.

Assuming that the city can get the support, it will have to find acceptable locations for replacement housing. A waiver probably will be needed to allow more housing in areas where HUD regulations currently limit low-income families. Some proportion of the replacement housing could be in the form of rent certificates or vouchers. These encourage the upgrading of privately owned rental housing and give motivated families the incentive to move outside the city and closer to jobs.

Another piece of the puzzle is what to do with the high-rises when they're vacated. Since they won't be eligible for HUD subsidies (if the federal agency agrees to replace them), alternative uses will have to be found. One possibility is the state's "Partnership for Rental Housing" program, which provides fix-up grants for properties which may be owned by the Housing Authority with the understanding that they will become self-supporting with rental income. This means finding tenants willing and able to pay higher rents in the high-rises after they're improved.

Some of the buildings may need to be demolished to make room for replacement housing. Others might be converted to "adults only" housing (a concept that already has worked well in one building) and continue to be subsidized as a part of the public housing program.

In any event, the phasing out of families living in city high-rises will take at least 10 years. The important thing, however, is that a start has been made and a course set. It's a wise course for the city and the poor families it must harbor.

John A. McCauley is the former deputy commissioner of the city 1/2 Department of Housing and Community Development.

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