Plan to relocate families from inner city fuels fears

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in Sunday's editions of The Sun incorrectly described the candidacy of Stephen A. Xintas. Mr. Xintas is running for the House of Delegates from Baltimore County's 6th Legislative District.

The Sun regrets the error.

For residents of eastern Baltimore County, a plan that could move poor inner-city residents to the suburbs has created a summer of rumors, uncertainty and racial politics.

"I've heard that the city is going to tear down the Lafayette and Murphy Homes high-rise projects and move the people here to Essex," says Stephen Xintas, a tavern keeper running as a Republican for the County Council in the 5th District. "And I hear residents of Hawthorne are being moved out to make room for people from the city."

A 7th District council candidate, Democratic Del. Louis L. DePazzo of Dundalk, told an angry crowd at Chesapeake High School last month that city housing project dwellers "must be to taught to bathe and how not to steal."

The object of their anger is Moving to Opportunity (MTO), a pilot program by the federal government and Baltimore that will use Section 8 rent subsidies to move 285 poor families from inner-city neighborhoods to more prosperous areas.

Sponsors of the program say they expect about half those chosen to pick new housing in the city. How many of the rest are likely to move to Baltimore County or other metropolitan area counties is unclear.

Approved by the federal government in March, MTO is expected to place its first city residents in new homes by November.

Opponents call the program the first step in an attempt to move inner-city residents to eastern Baltimore County en masse. MTO officials say that just the opposite is true. Federal authorities say MTO has been well received elsewhere.

Baltimore County officials have stayed outside the fray, calling the program the city's project and the city's problem.

But candidates for Eastside offices have been hearing plenty about it when they go door-to-door.

"We've got more than our share of Section 8 housing, and now the government wants to shove more down our throats," Cleveland Reynolds, a retired firefighter, told Democratic Senate candidate Robert Page during a swing through the Country Ridge section of Essex.

"Ever since Section 8 housing started increasing four or five years ago, crime has been increasing in our neighborhood. As soon as I can, I'm selling my house and I'm out of here," Mr. Reynolds said.

MTO officials say the community's concerns are groundless -- that the program was not designed to concentrate low-income people, but to disperse them -- in the city and surrounding counties -- in neighborhoods with good housing, schools and job opportunities.

"The actions of some people spreading rumors and making inflammatory remarks is irresponsible and racist," said Daniel P. Henson III, director of the Baltimore City Housing Authority, which administers the program.

Some MTO backers blame Baltimore County officials for letting rumors about the project go unchecked.

"If you ask me, has there been an adequate effort to inform residents about the facts of the MTO program before things got out of hand, I'd have to say no," said Robert Gajdys, executive director of the Community Assistance Network, the Baltimore County nonprofit housing agency selected to counsel MTO applicants.

Racial fears roused

County Executive Roger B. Hayden said that the county has no control over the MTO program and was not invited to help plan it. But in light of the furor, he said his administration would attempt to get accurate information to concerned residents.

There is no doubt that MTO has aroused racial fears and animosities in the east side's predominantly white, blue-collar neighborhoods. Many residents see MTO as the first step in a government plan to tear down the city's housing projects and move their residents to eastern Baltimore County.

The resentment of working class people in neighborhoods already suffering from unemployment, crime and urban decay has found an outlet in the Eastern Political Organization, which has conducted a noisy campaign of community meetings to protest the MTO plan.

"I get heartburn when I have to get up at 5 a.m. to go to work and think about these people" sleeping in rent-subsidized houses, said Jerry Hersl, a Rosedale engineer who helped form the organization.

It's a feeling that conservative Eastside Democrats capitalized on during the 1960s and early 1970s, and some candidates have taken up the cry this election year. Other politicians are running for cover, blaming the federal bureaucracy for plotting behind their backs.

"We're getting the word out to residents to overcome the secrecy surrounding this program," said Ray Schiflet, another founder of the Eastern organization.

'Fear campaign'

MTO's backers say most of the "information" being disseminated by Mr. Schiflet's group is sheer nonsense.

"It's a fear campaign of problem-making, instead of problem-solving," said Jean Jung, a Democratic County Council candidate from Dundalk and president of the board of the Community Assistance Network.

Mr. Gajdys, director of the network, said, "I can tell you, if I were an MTO participant, given the sentiment, Essex would be the last place I would choose to relocate."

Until now, the Hayden administration has taken a hands-off approach. County officials argue that MTO is a deal between the city and federal government, negotiated without the county's participation.

The county refused to support the city's application for federal funds for MTO, and county officials say they had trouble getting detailed information about the project while it was being planned. City officials did ask for comments later, they said.

Frank J. Welsh, the county's housing director, said he is also upset because the federal government has found money to relocate city dwellers when it won't supply enough to meet the county's growing need for subsidized housing for its own residents.

As one of five cities in the MTO demonstration project, Baltimore will get about $12 million in Section 8 rent certificates. It will also receive about $500,000 in administrative money from the $70 million program, which was funded by Congress last year. The other cities are Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Altogether, 6,200 families will be relocated.

Low-income families chosen for MTO will receive federal subsidies that pay up to 100 percent of their rent. They must move to neighborhoods -- in the city or elsewhere -- where no more than 10 percent of families have incomes below the federal poverty level.

Only local opposition

The uproar in eastern Baltimore County is the only serious local opposition MTO has faced nationwide, according to officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"I guess MTO came along at the wrong time in eastern Baltimore County," said Marty Rouse, an aide to HUD Assistant Secretary Roberta Achtenberg. "It's unfortunate that some people there are using MTO for personal and political aggrandizement."

In Boston, a city with a long history of racial tensions, the program has been well accepted, said Bill Riley, an assistant administrator of the Boston Housing Authority.

"We received very positive publicity when we first announced the award of the MTO grant to Boston," he said. "Everything related to the program here is proceeding smoothly, and we've had no negative reaction at all."

In Baltimore, the award was not announced at all, the result of a March meeting between housing directors in the city and surrounding counties who decided it would be better not to publicize it.

Mr. Welsh, the Baltimore County housing director, said he agreed with that decision. He said timing was the issue. The city was announcing a seven-year plan to close Lexington Terrace and three other high-rise housing projects, and he was concerned that suspicious Eastside residents would see the program as the beginning of a mass export of low-income city dwellers.

In the end, he said, events proved him correct.

Mr. Xintas, the County Council candidate who has campaigned vigorously against the program, said, "You hear about MTO and you hear about the city tearing down its projects and you can easily put two and two together."

At a meeting Wednesday in the basement of Dundalk's Church of the Brethren, local resident Greg Massoni called MTO a "smoke screen" for federal plans to empty downtown housing projects into the county's already stressed eastern end.

As word of the program spread during the spring -- largely as a result of the Eastern Political Organization's campaign -- federal and city housing officials agreed to discuss MTO at a series of community meetings.

But the first effort, a crowded meeting June 21 at Chesapeake High School, turned into a noisy, racially tinged free-for-all. MTO officials called off further attempts to speak to the community, effectively turning the issue over to the politicians and MTO opponents.

"The situation has gotten very volatile out here in recent weeks," said Perry Hall Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, who has come under fire for routine votes to approve the receipt of federal funds for the county's existing Section 8 housing tenants.

He said his explanation that poor people would be evicted from their apartments if the county refused to accept the money is being given short shrift.

With no public housing, Baltimore County has relied on Section 8 funds for years and now has 3,257 families living in rent-subsidized apartments, according to housing administration figures.

Although the outcry against MTO has come in the eastern county, the largest concentration of subsidized units, 30 percent of the total, is on the opposite side of the Beltway in the 2nd Council District, which takes in Randallstown and Pikesville. The southeastern area that includes Essex and Dundalk accounts for 26 percent.

While opponents frequently couch their objections to subsidized housing in terms of crime, even Mr. Hersl concedes that some of the opposition to MTO is racial.

Dunbar Brooks, a school board member who lives in Turners Station below Dundalk and who is a county official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has not received any calls about the situation.

"But based on what I've been hearing, it's evident attitudes haven't changed much over the years," he said. "We're dealing with a racial issue here and the county has never effectively dealt with that issue."

HOUSING PROGRAM AT A GLANCE

The Moving to Opportunity program is authorized in Section 152 of the U.S. Housing and Development Act of 1992.

PROGRAM OBJECTIVE: To give low-income families the opportunity to move from areas with high concentrations of poverty to ones with low poverty levels, within the city or in metropolitan area counties.

HOW MANY PEOPLE: In Baltimore, 285 families will be selected.

HOW THE PROGRAM WILL WORK: Selected families will be divided into two groups. An experimental group will receive Section 8 certificates or vouchers to be used only for existing units in low-poverty areas. These families will receive counseling and housing-search assistance.

A comparison group will receive the same Section 8 rent subsidy but can move anywhere without restrictions and will receive the standard Section 8 briefing.

PARTICIPANTS: Low-income families in Baltimore housing projects or in Section 8 rental units in areas with high levels of poverty.

WHO ADMINISTERS THE PROJECT: The Baltimore City Housing Authority will administer the MTO program. The Community Assistance Network, a nonprofit agency based in Dundalk, will provide counseling and housing search assistance to participants, regardless of where they want to live.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°