Disprepair breeds danger at Flag House Courts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The elevator shook to a stop and Andrea "Piper" Horton, 6 and her 4-year-old sister, Erica, found themselves staring at a wall. They were stuck between floors.

Not knowing what to do, Andrea helped lower her younger sister to the floor below. But as she tried to get out, she slipped and plunged more than eight stories down the shaft.

"I thought I was going to die," she recalls.

Andrea fell on a bed of trash, lucky to escape only with bruises and a back injury in that 1987 incident. But it illustrates the dangers residents face daily at Baltimore's Flag House Courts public housing project.

At Flag House Courts, it is not unusual for young children to be hurt in elevator accidents or burned on exposed steam pipes. Tenants are struck by cabinets dislodging from walls or doors falling off closets. Children are sickened by asthma attacks triggered by the heating system's sharp temperature changes. And they are cut by shards of glass and poked by hypodermic syringes left lying on the untended grounds.

"I had a case where a child put one [a syringe] in his mouth," says Dr. Carolyn Cowles, who works at the nearby Greater Baltimore Medical Center clinic, which draws many patients from Flag. "This is certainly no place to raise a family."

The hazards at Flag, which The Sun visited daily for a month, reflect the deterioration and neglect of the East Baltimore

housing project. The evidence is apparent everywhere: sewage backups into bathtubs, huge populations of mice and maggots, broken windows, mounds of uncollected trash, walls rotted with water damage.

The most basic chores -- raking lawns, sweeping stairwells -- are done sporadically. Simple plumbing and electrical repairs can take months. A paltry number of workers -- 13 -- are assigned to take care of Flag, which has 487 apartments spread among rows of town homes and three high-rise buildings. Tenants blame the neglect on the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, saying the landlord has abandoned them.

Housing officials acknowledge some failings but say that tenants share the blame. Vandalism is endemic at Flag -- drug dealers shoot out lights, squatters trash vacant apartments, children litter. Some residents throw soiled diapers out of windows. Others don't even attempt to clean their homes.

However the fault is apportioned, the result is a miserable environment. The violence that envelops Flag from the drug trade contributes to a palpable sense of fear among residents. The dilapidated buildings and dirty grounds lead to a comparable sense of despair among Flag's 2,000 tenants, many of them poor people whose lives already are virtually drained of hope.

"It's sad people have to live like this," says Olenia Ebanks, a longtime tenant. "Believe me, I don't like living like this. I want better things."

Residents now have so little enthusiasm for Flag that they have ** scant interest even for gestures of good will. Last summer, Flag manager Susan B. Pierce challenged residents to think of a project that would spark a sense of ownership and community. She offered prize money totaling $1,000 for the best ideas.

"There were suggestions that we offer a pizza party or something," Ms. Pierce says. "But I said 'no.' I thought cash would be a real motivator."

Only one person signed up to participate. "The money still is in the bank," Ms. Pierce says.

Children are injured

A year after Andrea tumbled down the elevator shaft, her father, Bobby Horton, broke his wrist in a fall after a stairway banister in his apartment tore free from the wall. And when Erica, now 9, was a toddler, she badly burned her hip on an exposed steam pipe in her bedroom. The scar remains today.

"The pipes had been uncovered for a long time," says Diane Horton, her mother. "But after that, they came and covered them that day."

Injuries from hot pipes are a common complaint at Flag. Olenia Ebanks was mopping the floor of her kitchen when her year-old son, Davon, was hurt while playing in his bedroom with a cousin in January 1992.

"I heard him holler and scream, but I figured they were playing," she says. "But my older son brought him downstairs. I saw the eye, and I was like, 'What the hell?' "

The burn from a radiator pipe left Davon's left eye swollen shut and the surrounding skin discolored. His mother took him to the nearby GBMC clinic, which sent him on to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Fortunately, Davon's eyesight was not damaged, although he suffered first- and second-degree burns.

Ms. Ebanks says maintenance workers covered the heating pipes in her apartment a day after the accident. But she said she had to remove the foam and cardboard covers because mice were moving into them from a downstairs apartment.

When the problem of dozens of children being burned on heating pipes at Flag came to the attention of the Housing Authority last year, the agency estimated that it would cost $300 a unit, or about $146,000, to eliminate the hazard. Because of the cost and more pressing maintenance problems, Ms. Pierce says, pipes are being covered in a few vacant units being prepared for new tenants, but not routinely in other units.

The heating system at Flag has another unhealthy effect. Many youngsters in the project have asthma. Dr. Cowles, the GBMC doctor, says the respiratory disease is aggravated by frequent temperature and humidity changes in the apartments, which occur as the steam heating clicks on and off.

"It's either too hot or too cold in those apartments," she says. Tenants often open windows in winter because, with no thermostats in the apartments, they have no way to control the heat. Dr. Cowles says the rapid temperature changes can trigger asthma attacks, in which patients gasp for breath.

Flag's children face other perils. Six-year-old Chastity Oliver spent three months in the hospital and later used a wheelchair for weeks after breaking her leg and fracturing a hip after falling over trash piled around a container outside her grandmother's ,, apartment. The accident occurred last spring.

Beverly Williams, the grandmother, says the trash -- she believes it was discarded furniture -- sat untouched by maintenance workers for weeks.

"They really made me angry," Ms. Williams says of the housing managers. "They never came around here to apologize."

Sally B. Gold, special counsel to the Housing Authority, says the agency recorded 26 incident reports at Flag over the past three years. Among them were claims from a shooting, a falling kitchen cabinet, and a sewage backup. Residents and housing advocates say there are many more injuries at Flag, but most do not result in formal claims against the Housing Authority.

Ms. Ebanks says that some people do not complain because they may be in violation of their leases -- behind on the rent, perhaps, or allowing relatives to double up with them. "People are scared of getting evicted," she says.

Apart from injuries, the effects of neglect and poor maintenance are apparent all over Flag. Leslie Jones only has to look out of her kitchen window to be reminded of that. A stray bullet crashed through the window years ago, but the Housing Authority has yet to fix it. Through the cracked glass, she can see old mop heads, discarded soda cans, diapers, beer bottles and syringes piled deep along a ledge outside her apartment. Ms. Jones climbs out to pick up the debris from time to time, but the ledge soon becomes littered again.

There are problems inside her apartment, too. Several electrical outlets don't work. During the summer, Ms. Jones says, maggots sometimes fall out of cracks in the plaster. One of her living-room windows won't stay open because the frame is too wide to support it.

Above her apartment, a washing machine drain hose hangs out of a window, raining dirty, sudsy water on the neighborhood whenever the machine is in operation. Tenants aren't supposed to have washing machines, but many do because the community laundry rooms have been damaged by vandals. If connected, the machines overload the drain pipes at Flag, contributing to frequent sewage backups.

In Ms. Jones' apartment, black, oily sewage regularly bubbles up into the sinks and bathtub. "I stopped taking baths a long time ago," she says. "I got caught in that stuff once."

Aging buildings

Housing Authority officials say that many problems occur because Flag's buildings are more than 37 years old and badly deteriorated.

For example, maintenance workers must shut off the water for half of a 12-story building to fix a plumbing problem as minor as a worn washer. That's because rusty cut-off valves in apartments can no longer be trusted to hold back the water.

The project has 13 maintenance workers -- four skilled mechanics, six laborers, a resident custodian and two part-time resident building aides -- to clean and repair almost everything throughout the complex.

They are overwhelmed by the workload, says Ms. Pierce, Flag's housing manager. An increase in vacant apartments, which become vandalized and need extensive renovations, has added to the strain. A quarter of Flag's apartments were empty in March, mainly because the Housing Authority does not have enough workers to renovate them quickly.

Each month, workers slip further behind. In March, 572 repair requests were carried over from the previous month. That was 11 more than were carried into February.

Wayne Manns, maintenance supervisor at Flag, says the Housing Authority's system for handling repairs adds to the inefficiency. Repair requests for Flag are routed through a central repair shop at Lafayette Courts housing project, several blocks away.

Parts and other supplies needed to do the jobs are stored at Lafayette, in an effort to prevent thefts by maintenance workers, Mr. Manns says. Repair orders or parts from one development often end up at another one, further slowing down work.

"I have developed a system where I do as much as I can, and that's it," Mr. Manns says. "The length of time a repair takes depends on the problems and the flow of work."

'What's the point?'

Even when maintenance employees make improvements, their work often is quickly undone by vandals, Ms. Pierce says. "I have had electricians doing work, and the work is messed up even before they can get out of a building," Ms. Pierce says. "It makes them wonder, what's the point?"

"We constantly replace closet doors. How often do you replace a closet door at home?" she continues. "We repeatedly do plastering because of holes in the walls. Repeatedly, we replace lights in the hallways. We constantly have a backup of the same type of requests."

Many residents concede that some Flag tenants contribute to the problem and criticize the vandals.

But for tenants who work hard to keep their apartments tidy and grounds clear, the overall dreariness is dispiriting. Even the better-kept units at Flag look battle-worn. Everywhere, there is crumbling plaster and flaking paint. Water seeps through walls, and closet doors rot off hinges.

Louise Annie Moore, a factory worker, pays $377 a month for her three-bedroom apartment. The plaster is breaking in the stairway. Mice dart through the holes under her sink. Last year, she says, hot water rushed from her kitchen tap for six full months before workers finally fixed it. All it needed was a washer. Now, she is trying to get the other problems repaired.

"I call, I call, I call, I call," she says. "But I get no response."

Tomorrow: A teen-ager's effort to rise above the despair at Flag House Courts.

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