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Repairs badly needed while housing's purse bulges

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By now hundreds of vacant buildings would be renovated and vandalized playgrounds rebuilt, if only Baltimore's housing agency had done what government usually does best -- spend tax dollars.

While public officials everywhere have struggled to make ends meet in a recession, Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development has sat on tens of millions of dollars set aside to revive the city's ailing communities.

The city now has $51 million in unspent city and federal dollars -- money to rehabilitate decrepit homes and buildings, rebuild antiquated playgrounds, pave roads, subsidize mortgages, relocate businesses, aid neighborhood programs and replace 40 public housing units.

A hefty chunk of that cash -- $16 million -- is the city's own money, accumulated from taxes and bonds. Another $35 million is federal housing money. The money has gone unspent from one to five years, city records show.

News of the unspent federal funds -- called Community Development Block Grant money -- was first reported by The Sun in February after federal officials ordered the city to spend the money faster.

The money accumulated while Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his now-deposed Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn blamed federal red tape and cutbacks for their difficulties rejuvenating city neighborhoods.

But a review by The Sun of the untapped funds suggests the main problem is that staff cuts made to save money during the city's current fiscal crisis left the agency with cash to spend, but fewer housing officials with the knowledge and experience to spend it.

The housing department -- nationally known in the 1970s and early 1980s for its creative use of federal money -- has lost 136 employees in the last three years, with a staff dropping from 504 to 368.

A smaller staff for buying houses has slowed the process of renovating vacant homes, for example, while the layoff of a landscape architect left playground money unspent because the city had no one left to draw plans.

In March, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke removed Mr. Hearn and replaced him with developer Daniel P. Henson III.

Since Mr. Henson's appointment, the housing agency has been spending some of the backlogged funds more quickly.

Mr. Henson said he is reviewing all the unfinished projects to see if they can move ahead quickly. Otherwise, the money may be transferred to new projects.

"To the extent that a project can't go through in the next six to nine months, we're going to take the money and reallocate it," he said.

Mr. Henson rejects the notion that the housing agency -- under his predecessor -- failed to move quickly enough to spend the money. In his view, the money is not "unspent" because it is dedicated for specific projects.

"As far as I'm concerned the money's spent. I haven't written the check yet, but the money's spent," he said.

Mr. Henson also noted that not all the problems involve government. In some projects, he explained, federal money is supposed to be used in joint ventures with private firms, few of which have been willing to get involved because of the recession.

He and other housing officials declined to answer specific questions about most of the unspent money, and would not provide an updated accounting of the status of unspent federal funds.

But documents obtained by The Sun account for the $16 million in unspent city money. They show that about $9 million is slated for paving, construction loans and unspecified "public improvements." Another $7 million is earmarked for neighborhood grants, new playgrounds and to buy, demolish, or rehabilitate vacant properties and to relocate tenants and businesses.

Mr. Henson's predecessor, Mr. Hearn, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mayor Schmoke also declined an interview, although in a written response to a request for an interview he said, "I feel very strongly that [Mr. Henson] is working hard to resolve any outstanding problems regarding the expenditure of block grant funds."

Downhill slide

Had the city spent the money faster, many Baltimore neighborhoods might not look so ragged today, with vacant houses and trashed lots dotting the inner city like weeds.

The city, for example, has had $13 million in city and federal funds set aside to buy, renovate or demolish more than 600 properties, most vacant and crumbling.

As the money has accumulated, the number of vacant buildings has steadily grown to 6,974 -- from 5,703 in 1986.

The cost of the delay is perhaps most evident in South Baltimore's Sharp-Leadenhall, where vacant houses in the 100 blocks of W. Cross and W. Hamburg streets are the last scars of a rejuvenated community that sits in the shadow of Baltimore's gleaming new baseball stadium.

Four years ago, the city set aside $640,000 in federal money to buy and renovate 20 dilapidated rowhouses in that neighborhood. Another $200,000 of city money was set aside a year ago for new sidewalks, curbs and trees.

But while the money is still available, the vacant houses are crumbling, with bricks falling from the back walls. The grounds around them are littered with trash, wine bottles and crack cocaine vials.

So far, all the city has done is buy 13 of the houses.

Last November, frustrated leaders of the Sharp-Leadenhall Planning Committee Inc. sent a letter to then city housing commissioner Hearn asking why renovation hadn't started.

Mamie E. Wilson, the group's president, warned Mr. Hearn that people driving by on their way to Oriole Park at Camden Yards will see a neighborhood "which seemed caught in a time warp in terms of boarded-up, deteriorated and dilapidated housing."

Bettye BaCote, the group's director, said the blocks where the vacant houses sit "have become a dumping ground. And it's a ripple effect. One thing deteriorates and everything deteriorates around it."

She worries that the houses have decayed so badly they may not be salvageable.

City officials say they plan to renovate the houses within the next year. Ms. BaCote said a housing official told her rehabilitation won't begin until the spring of 1994.

City officials say the project has been delayed because the small staff they have to buy houses has had trouble purchasing some of the properties.

The city's inertia also has left half a million dollars unspent to rebuild playgrounds in four of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods Harlem Park, Franklin Square, Edgewood and Jonestown. Meanwhile, the playgrounds -- stripped of swings and slides -- are home to drug addicts and homeless men.

Layoffs stall action

In West Baltimore's Franklin Square, for example, Joyce Smith would love a new roof on her neighborhood's Martin Luther King Recreation Center. She would also love to see new playground equipment outside the small brick center, located along an alley called Vincent Street.

But the layoff of a landscape architect by the city's housing department more than a year ago has stalled the project, even though $63,500 is available to do the work, city officials admit.

"I've been aware the money's there for the last two years because the architect did come out and then he lost his job," said Ms. Smith, president of the Franklin Square Community Association.

She said the community uses the center for an after-school homework program, a food co-op, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, exercise classes, and a homebuyers' club to help market houses in the community. But many people are afraid to come up to the building because of the poor condition of the alley and surrounding grounds.

"How do we get this money since there's no architect? How do we start?" Ms. Smith asks.

Zack Germroth, spokesman for the housing department, confirmed that the landscape architect's layoff has held up the project.

"We're looking at the possibility of reallocating that money [for another purpose] or possibly contracting it out to a private architect," he said.

Just as the loss of the landscape architect slowed the rebuilding of playgrounds, the layoff of the director of the city's Neighborhood Incentive Program has slowed the number of grants given to communities to build tot lots, to repair community buildings and for other small neighborhood improvements.

Today, a year and a half after the director's layoff, there is more than $400,000 in city bond funds, accumulated during the last five years, that are available for civic grants. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the program used to be so popular among community groups that the city had to reduce the amount of each grant -- from $25,000 to $10,000 -- so more grants would be available.

"It's a wonderful program. It was a win-win situation because most of it was done on public property and what was done on private property was for public use," said Naomi Benyowitz, who headed the program from 1988 until the end of 1991, when she was laid off.

After her layoff, Ms. Benyowitz's duties were split among several other housing employees.

Deputy Housing Commissioner Harold R. Perry said in an interview that the city has had a decrease in the number of applications, but he doesn't know why. He said the layoff of the director had nothing to do with the drop off of applicants, since other housing officials took over her work.

Housing officials put their own spin on the unspent grant money a little over a week ago by sending out a news release announcing "an increase in Neighborhood Incentive Program funding" that allows them to return to the larger $25,000 grants that were offered several years ago.

When news of the unspent federal funds was first reported in February, community leaders and city council members were taken by surprise. Many now say they had no idea the housing department was sitting on so much money. They were even more surprised to hear the city hasn't spent its own money for programs like the neighborhood incentive grants.

'Pound foolish'

"A lot of people came to the conclusion that there was no money because they kept hearing there was no money," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

But Ms. Clarke said she is not surprised that neighborhood revitalization programs have slowed while money sits.

"You can't spend money without spending time," said Ms. Clarke. In December 1991, the council president and community leaders tried unsuccessfully to save the jobs of housing department workers being laid off.

"I begged the commissioner and the mayor not to lay them off. You can't spend money if you don't have people to spend it. You need architects, planners. It's penny wise and pound foolish," she said.

City Councilman Lawrence A. Bell, D-4th, said he was surprised that there is so much money available to rejuvenate neighborhoods in his West Baltimore district.

He's been helping community leaders in Edgewood to replace an old playground near the corner of Harlem Avenue and Denison Street that is a mangled, rusty mess of vandalized equipment.

Unbeknown to him, the city has had more than $100,000 for over two years to do the work.

"It's taken an extremely long time," said Mr. Bell. "I thought they didn't have the money."

He blamed the previous housing commissioner for giving the city council a "snow job" on the status of housing programs, but is "very hopeful the new commissioner is a more action-oriented person" and will get the money spent.

U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, upon hearing details of the unspent funds, said he plans to ask the mayor for an "explanation in light of a great deal of troubling statistics."

"I am disturbed and distressed at even the suggestion that federal dollars that we fought to bring in to the city have yet to be properly appropriated. It is of even greater concern because there is such a high level of need in so many communities," he said.

Brain drain

Across the country, cities are faced with dwindling staffs of specialists to run housing and planning programs.

Consequently, urban revitalization plans that began in the '60s and '70s have been stymied, said Marc Levine, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Mr. Levine, who is writing a history of Baltimore's approach to urban redevelopment, said, "I think unfortunately it's an increasingly common problem, not as dramatic as in Baltimore. But I think it's something cities are experiencing through attrition of staff or layoffs. You don't have sufficient expertise to run programs or to start innovative programs."

But he said he was not aware of any other city sitting on so much unspent money, and was disappointed to hear that Baltimore is "not spending precious resources in an era where you've got limited federal dollars coming in."

Saving graces

Of course, not all of the city's housing projects have stalled. In the West Baltimore neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Penn-North, for example, the city has spent more than $10 million to help build 283 new homes for the nationally touted Nehemiah Project.

While the city still has a $35 million backlog in unspent federal block grant funds -- down from $46 million last November -- officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development now say the city is getting better at spending the money.

"The progress that the city has made in the past six months has been much better and if they continue at this rate, they'll be in good shape," said Maxine Saunders, manager of HUD's Baltimore office.

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