First came a study in November suggesting that high-rise public housing in Baltimore has proven a failure as a place for young families to develop. Now comes evidence that one of the few alternatives -- so-called "scattered-site housing," consisting largely of renovated row houses in poor, inner-city neighborhoods -- is also in trouble. Yesterday The Evening Sun's Joan Jacobson reported that some 300 units owned by the Housing Authority currently are vacant, and that many have been so severely vandalized they lack plumbing, aluminum windows and even the plywood planks the city installed to board them up.
To put the figures in perspective, the 300 row houses in question represent only a relatively small fraction of the city's 18,000 public housing units, which include high-rise projects, senior citizens' housing and conventional low-rise developments. Yet the shocking fact is, the current number of vacant and abandoned units still represents an increase of between 500 percent and 600 percent over just a few years ago. What accounts for the spiraling number of vacant dwellings at the very time homelessness is on the rise?
Several explanations have been offered. Housing officials say many of the vacant units are "partial-rehabs" -- buildings taken over by the Housing Authority 20 years ago that were never completely restored and are now showing their age. In addition, new federal rules and red tape make restoring such units more difficult and expensive than in the past; as a result, vandalized units tend to stay vacant longer. Finally, the drug crisis and the rise in inner-city poverty over the last decade have intensified the isolation and desperation of families in public housing, leaving poor residents less able than ever to cope with eviction and abandonment.
Yet scattered-site housing remains the most practical alternative to the high-rise hell of large public housing projects. That is why Housing Authority officials need to find ways to ensure these units are returned quickly to the city's housing stock. Last year, the agency applied for HUD funding to restore 100 vacant units, and this year it will request funding for twice that number. But the effort will take more than money. It will also require greater community and tenant involvement in managing and maintaining public housing units. The best defense against the blight of vacant, boarded-up buildings are active neighborhood groups that can spot problems before they get out of hand. These are the people housing officials ought to be enlisting in their fight to preserve the housing gains that now are threatened.