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High-rise dream of the '50s becomes a nightmare of the '90s : Lafayette Courts judged costly failure


When the tall towers of Lafayette Courts opened 37 years ago, they offered poor families safe, clean housing and hope. Rising above the tenements the families left behind, the public housing project had lawns and flowers and a penthouse view of the harbor.

Today, Kim Woodley will tell you what it's like to live at Lafayette Courts.

She'll tell you about the sink that backs up sewage in her kitchen, the mice that race across her cement floor three at a time, the syringes that drug addicts dump in the playground and the dirty diapers that her neighbors drop from the floors above.

Built just east of downtown, Lafayette Courts is Baltimore's largest and oldest high-rise public housing project. By all accounts it has been a failure -- so much so that Baltimore's Housing Authority announced three weeks ago that it wants to tear the project down.

Like other high-rise ghettos in America's large cities, Lafayette Courts proved disastrous for poor families. It was doomed because of poor design, poor management and the intractable problems of poverty.

The failure of Lafayette Courts is a costly one. While the Housing Authority spent $7.6 million to build it in 1955, it would cost $6 million just to knock down five of the six towers and $52 million to replace them. The authority police force costs $5.7 million a year. The heavily vandalized elevators alone

cost $15,000 a month to repair.

It is still uncertain whether the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will fund the ambitious plans by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to replace five of the six 11-story towers and modernize the 17 nearby low-rise buildings.

But the tenants of Lafayette Courts are ready to pack.

"I'm all for it. They can do it today," said Nacole Taylor, who has spent 32 years in Lafayette Courts -- her entire life.

Her childhood memories of a safe home when "there were flowers and no drug dealers" are long gone.

"This is just a jail house," she said.

When the city broke ground in 1953, The Evening Sun reported that Lafayette Courts would "replace one of the worst slums that existed in the city."

The ceremony drew politicians and a local minister who blessed the site. When the "skyscrapers" were completed two years later, The Sun extolled the harbor views offered to "$50 a week laborers."

While the high-rise buildings were touted as a panacea for the poor, the reason for their novel design was purely financial.

The Housing Authority had limited funds to buy land, said John McCauley, who ran the authority for 18 years until he retired a year ago. So Baltimore had to "build up" on 21.5 acres, just like other cities did.

The high-rises were viewed with such excitement that the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health spent $500,000 to compare the health and mental well-being of tenants at Lafayette with those who remained in the tenements below.

Their conclusion seven years after the first tenants moved in: Residents at Lafayette Courts reported fewer accidents and illnesses and found their new community more neighborly and a safer place for their children to play.

And that's how Frances Reives remembers it. She moved to Lafayette Courts when it opened and she's still there. For 22 years she worked as the resident aide for the authority, showing young tenants how to keep house and budget their money.

"In the '50s and '60s, it was a beautiful place to live," she recalled. "You had a place for your children to play. You could leave your kids safely outside. You weren't worried about someone breaking into your home. There was a lot of love from neighbors."

'People are different'

By the 1970s, though, Baltimore was becoming a poorer and more violent city. Shootings and drug dealing spilled over into the projects.

In an effort to turn around decaying cities, the administration of President Jimmy Carter began pouring money into Baltimore and other urban centers. Poor tenants at Lafayette Courts took advantage of job-training programs that enabled them to work their way out of public housing, just as many of the first occupants had.

But a decade later, the federal government under President Ronald Reagan ended most job-training programs. And more tenants, unable to find jobs, ended up on the welfare rolls.

Private housing became more expensive, subsidized housing programs were cut back, and people began doubling up with public housing tenants.

Possibly as many as one-third of people in public housing are there illegally today, according to housing officials.

Thelma Millard, who heads family support services for public housing, recalled that 20 years ago, young unemployed mothers had help from relatives who worked.

Now, she said, their relatives are out of work, too.

"If we are successful in getting a mother to go to job training, there's no job when she gets out," she added.

Consequently, there is a more permanent population of people on welfare, and many who grew up there are now raising their own children in Lafayette Courts.

Some tenants let drug dealers use their homes, neighbors complain.

"The atmosphere and the people are different now," Ms. Reives said. "You don't have to live in Towson to make a nice place to live. You can make it nice here. Because you live in the projects, it don't mean you're in prison. You don't have to use your Pamper [diapers] and throw it out the window."

Today, Sonja Merchant-Jones is Lafayette Court's resident aide. She walks the buildings every day, meeting with tenants, doing the work Ms. Reives did before her.

During her 11 years there, she's seen a change "in the way people look at things."

When she moved to Lafayette, she recalled, "If you saw a neighbor out cleaning, you felt bad for not getting out there. There was usually an older woman setting the tone. Ten years ago it would have been a shame to have drug dealers in the stairways. Now it's accepted."

'Like a slumlord'

After 37 years, the buildings at Lafayette Courts are weary. The pipes leak, walls crack, paint peels, plumbing fails, roaches thrive and, to hear tenants tell it, more mice than people have taken up residence.

To deal with all that, there is a staff of 19 -- 19 people to clean and repair 23 buildings that house 2,280 people. The staff is the same size as when the project was new in 1955.

Lafayette Courts' manager, Carnelious Harrison, acknowledged that his crew has been unable to keep up with routine maintenance and trash removal. But he said they do a good job with emergency repairs.

Tenants, though, say it is increasingly difficult to get their landlord to make repairs. Some of them have had to get legal help.

Marla Hollandsworth, a University of Baltimore Law School professor, runs a housing law clinic that has handled a dozen cases against the Housing Authority in the last year alone. The lawyers have persuaded a rent court judge to put the tenants' rent in an escrow account until repairs are made.

"All the [law] students come into the clinic and are shocked that the Housing Authority is a defendant," Ms. Hollandsworth said. "It's a public agency identified with the city, and here the city's being a slumlord. What does that say to private landlords?"

One of her clients is Kim Woodley, who is scheduled to go to rent court later this month because the Housing Authority's attempts to fix her sewage backup haven't worked.

In her experience, Ms. Woodley said, "Living in a private home takes the landlord less than 24 hours to come to fix something. In a [public housing] project, I have waited from July to October to get one thing done."

Mr. Harrison said his staff has made the repairs she requested. But she said the sink still backs up with sewage nearly every day.

"Personally, I think she's blowing it out of proportion," Mr. Harrison said.

As early as 9 a.m. most days, drug dealers overrun the courtyards near the high-rise building at 101 N. Aisquith St.

"They just kind of watch you," one resident said. "If they don't know you, it's as though they're trying to figure out if you buying or just passing through."

The design of the high-rises is ideal for drug dealers. They use the concealed stairways to shoot up and make deals. It is easy for them to slip in and out of apartments from darkened hallways. And the elevators are especially abused.

They break down often, smell of urine and are littered with trash. Tenants often must ride in darkness because vandals have pushed out the elevator lights. Children sometimes ride on top of the cabs in a dangerous game.

And drug dealers use the elevators for their trade, jamming them open for drug sales.

But residents of Lafayette Court's nearby low-rise buildings also complain bitterly about drug dealing. Tenants say the Housing Authority police officers are not visible enough and seem incapable of curbing the drug dealing.

The residents are particularly upset that they pulled security guards out of booths in each high-rise almost two years ago. Now anyone can come and go undetected. Almost 10 percent of Lafayette Courts' units are vacant because of damage by vandals.

Most of the people arrested at Lafayette Courts and other public

housing projects last year were not residents.

'Left wide open'

Mr. Harrison, the manager, conceded there is little security. "The buildings are left wide open," he said. "Having the guards certainly reduced the number of people coming into the building."

But William H. Matthews, head of the authority police force, said some of the guards were involved in drug trafficking and had to be fired. "We spent a lot of time investigating our own people," he said.

Now he plans to introduce electronic cards that unlock the building for tenants only.

In the meantime, tenants said they are fearful of strangers who roam the buildings.

"When I started the job, I didn't look behind my back," said Ms. Merchant-Jones, the resident aide. "But now I see people I don't recognize. I don't want to be a statistic in the stairwell."

As decrepit and dangerous as Lafayette Courts has become, Housing Authority officials said they are doing their best to cope.

"We think we are doing the best job possible under the circumstances -- the circumstances being an aging physical plant and a change in population making increasing demands on our resources," said Housing Authority spokesman Bill Toohey.

'Everybody wants out'

But how will a new, improved Lafayette Courts without high-rise buildings solve the problems?

Authority Director Robert W. Hearn believes that eliminating elevators, reducing the density of Lafayette Court's population and building private entrances and back yards will "create a sense of community" in a new low-rise project. He hopes that will prompt tenants to better protect and clean their homes and keep away outsiders.

Ms. Merchant-Jones agrees. She said she's been helping tenants prepare a letter to Mr. Hearn, favoring the plan to demolish the project.

"Everybody wants out," she said.

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