Relocation program won't grow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An experimental housing program that will move 285 Baltimore families from inner city public housing to homes in better neighborhoods will not expand beyond its current size, federal officials said yesterday.

About $149 million originally earmarked for a second round of the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program was rescinded by a House-Senate conference committee, said Michael A. Stegman, an assistant U.S. secretary of housing.

That money will go instead into a counseling program for regular recipients of Section 8 federal rent subsidies.

The MTO program has created a furor in Baltimore County's blue collar, Eastside communities, where activists and politicians have whipped up an election-year frenzy with claims that MTO is the first step in a plan by city and federal officials to move thousands of poor, inner-city residents to their neighborhoods.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that deals with the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD), defended the program yesterday but criticized its handlers.

"What I support is that people should have the opportunity to better themselves, and the government should do no harm," she said.

"But the program has been bungled by the city administration and by the group that was supposed to administer it," she said. "There has not been enough consultation with the community out there. That has exacerbated discontent to the point that it would be only a hollow opportunity for the poor people in the program."

Ms. Mikulski brushed off a question about whether MTO funding was cut in response to political pressure and complaints.

She said that President Clinton had asked for no new money for MTO and that HUD officials admitted that the program had many problems that the agency wanted to resolve.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is handling the MTO program locally. The Community Assistance Network, a private Baltimore County anti-poverty agency, is implementing it under contract with the housing authority.

MTO, which HUD called a "demonstration" program, is intended to uplift low-income families in public housing by helping them to move into neighborhoods with better schools, living conditions and job opportunities.

The recipients will be tracked for 10 years, and their experience will become part of a report to Congress on housing issues.

The program was conceived during the Bush administration at the urging of Jack F. Kemp, then secretary of HUD, and adopted by the Clinton administration.

Mr. Stegman, who supervises HUD's policy development and research, said the money originally intended for a second round of MTO will go instead to a program called Choice in Mobility.

"Choice in Mobility differs from MTO in that it doesn't require families to move to a particular area, for instance, low poverty areas," he said.

MTO rules prohibit recipients of Section 8 grants, which provide subsidies for low income renters of private apartments and homes, from moving to areas in which more than 10 percent of the residents have incomes below the federal poverty level.

Those earnings levels range from $9,840 for a single parent and child to $24,720 for a family of eight.

Baltimore is one of four cities nationally that won a competition for MTO funding. The others are Boston, Chicago and New York. In addition, Los Angeles was required by HUD to be part of the program. About 6,200 families will be involved nationally.

Rumors involving the program have been circulating through Baltimore's suburban counties ever since the local program was announced in March. But the main opposition surfaced at a series of heated meetings in eastern Baltimore County's white, blue-collar communities.

Opponents have expressed fears that the city would use MTO to "dump" hundreds of poor families living in the Lafayette Court and Murphy Homes in Baltimore into low-income apartment complexes in Essex.

Last night, before a crowd of about 350 people gathered in the Dundalk Community College gym, the two men who have stirred most of the opposition to MTO urged people to go to the polls on Tuesday and "clean house."

Jerry Hersl and Ray Shiflet distributed a sheet of their own political endorsements for Tuesday's primary election and said they intend to become a political force in Dundalk, as they are in Essex.

On the front of the endorsement letter, they repeated the unsubstantiated claim that has produced so much fear in Eastern Baltimore County -- that "MTO is only the beginning of a much larger move of 18,000 families in Baltimore City public housing."

Mike Bardoff, a Baltimore Neighborhoods tenant organizer who spoke about an elderly grandmother he helped get a federal Section 8 rent subsidy to stave off homelessness, was booed and hooted at by the foot-stomping crowd.

Senator Mikulski and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, also a Maryland Democrat, sent representatives to one of the meetings in Essex. Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, after months of saying that county officials had no say in the matter, eventually sent a letter to HUD asking that the program be "delayed."

The Rev. Charles T. Sembly, pastor of Union Bethel A.M.E. Church and president of the Baltimore County Ministerial Alliance, angered by Mr. Hayden's letter, accused him of "playing into the hands of those who would promote acrimony and racism at the expense of many decent people who only want an equal chance at life."

While MTO is aimed at moving families to better neighborhoods, there are limits on how much the Section 8 program will pay to subsidize low-income families in private rental housing. The amount is determined each year by HUD and depends on "fair market rentals" for various parts of the country.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, the cap is $494 for a one-bedroom unit, $603 for two bedrooms, $796 for three bedrooms and $911 for four bedrooms, including utilities.

There are only minor differences between MTO and the regular Section 8 program, in which about 20,000 Maryland families participate.

One is that half the MTO families will receive counseling and guidance from the Community Assistance Network in their move. The other half will serve as a control group to see if guidance makes any difference. Another difference is the requirement that MTO families move to areas with low poverty rates.

MTO is basically a research program, and as such is being run by Mr. Stegman's policy development and research department.

In Baltimore and Boston, the two cities where complaints have surfaced, residents appear to be worried less now about MTO than about what will come after it.

Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of HUD, announced in May a policy to demolish urban high-rise projects and "disperse" their tenants to middle-class neighborhoods.

Outlined in a scathing report called "The Transformation of HUD" that Mr. Cisneros sent to Congress, the public housing plan is a key element of a broad housing effort.

The issue, he said, is "not about race. It's about ambition and hope and upward mobility and sheer capacity."

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