Public housing: work, not welfare Residents to do renovation projects


The Baltimore Housing Authority's commissioners approved yesterday a plan that will enable public housing tenants get off welfare by working for a construction company the agency is forming.

The plan, known as Step Up, will be funded with a $756,000 federal resident initiative grant, said Daniel P. Henson III, the authority's executive director. The money will be used to train public housing residents in the skills needed to renovate dilapidated city-owned housing.

Under the plan, the authority will form HAB Co., a construction company the agency will manage and operate. The program is scheduled to start in February.

Mr. Henson said a lottery system will be used to select the workers. At least 1,000 of the city's 17,000 adult public housing residents are expected to apply for the first 50 Step Up jobs, he said. They will rehabilitate a 35-unit, city-owned apartment house on Shirley Avenue in Park Heights, he said.

Step Up is modeled after a similar program in Chicago. It will pay residents about $8 an hour to train for one year. After they complete the training, they will be offered higher-paying opportunities to study construction crafts such as electrical work, carpentry, roofing and masonry.

While the residents are in training, their welfare benefits will be suspended but could be reinstated if they dropped out, Mr. Henson said. State-supported medical benefits would continue, he said.

Women constitute the bulk of the Housing Authority's tenants, and about 80 percent of the new workers are expected to be females, Mr. Henson said. The authority will provide the new workers with child care, transportation and work clothing, he said.

"Critics tell me that people in public housing don't want to work," Mr. Henson said. "Others tell me that if they have the opportunity to work, they will."

The Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate that represents 19 local trade unions, has "endorsed" Step Up because it allows residents to pursue career goals, said William Kaczorowski, the union's president. Union members will be paid $15.25 an hour to teach residents specialty crafts.

"Finally, the Housing Authority is coming to realize that in order for people to move out of the projects, they have to offer their people a career ladder," Mr. Kaczorowski said.

Applicants must be at least 18 years old and will be screened by authority employees for their educational background, said Samuel B. Little, assistant director for family support services at the authority. A background check will also be conducted to screen tenants with criminal records, he said.

The screening has angered some residents, who think the standards should be relaxed so that more tenants will be attracted.

"The point is they are trying to straighten their life out, and we don't need to use this as a barrier," said Goldie Baker, a member of the committee that developed the plan. "If you're talking about a training program, why all the restrictions?"

The restrictions don't bother Gloria Watkins, a 26-year-old mother of three who lives at Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore. She said yesterday that she would love to have a job and will apply for Step Up.

"I want to get off of welfare," said Ms. Watkins, who receives $396 a month in public assistance and pays $97 a month in rent. "They don't give you much, and you have to wait a whole month to get a check, and once you pay bills it's gone. I want things for my children. I'm tired of sitting up here and waiting for a check."


* Must be at least 18.* Name must be on lease and rent payments must be current.* Must be high school graduate or test at least at an eighth-grade level.* If not a high school graduate, must be willing to study and obtain a general equivalency diploma.* Must sign form for personal background check.

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