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New Dawn at Lafayette Courts


The federal government's scheduled announcement today to spend $50 million on reconfiguring the Lafayette Courts project near the main Post Office represents a new dawn in Baltimore's -- and the nation's -- efforts to overhaul troubled public housing complexes.

Instead of merely trying to preserve the failed status quo, the government is finally opting for alternatives.

If everything goes as planned, demolition of five of the Lafayette project's high-rises should be going on by next fall. The cramped and outdated high-rise units would then be replaced with garden apartments more suitable for family living.

The Lafayette initiative underscores a profound change in federal attitude that has occurred under Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros. For decades, federal authorities mandated that the nation's public housing supply be strictly maintained. They insisted on an iron-clad one-for-one replacement of units. They also decreed endless repairs of existing units even when replacement made more sense.

The Clinton administration has changed this bureaucratic inflexibility. This was shown recently by Mr. Cisneros's endorsement of a $293.6 million plan that would combine federal, city and state resources to demolish 15 of the 18 public housing towers in Baltimore and relocate tenants in 1,116 units to privately managed housing throughout the city. An additional 1,650 units would be rebuilt at the high-rise sites. (The city has a total of 18,000 public housing units).

The money earmarked to reconfigure the Lafayette project is the first step in this ambitious scheme. If financing can be arranged, Lexington Terrace will be next, followed by the Murphy Homes and Flag House Court projects.

Some tenants in the demolished units will be given Section 8 certificates to subsidize their lodging in private apartments. Others will be directed to Partnership Rental Housing Program units. New construction is to be coordinated by the state; the complex would be privately managed.

The plan aims at reducing heavy concentrations of poverty. pTC Some of the subsidized low-income housing could be in suburban jurisdictions that so far have regarded public housing solely as the city's burden and problem. In the past, many suburban counties have resisted the idea. But as Montgomery County's recent aggressive and responsible efforts show, low-income housing can be successfully blended into the total community.

If this far-reaching scheme is completed, it will be one of the boldest experiments in changing the nature of public housing in the nation.

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