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Mikulski, Champion of Liberal Causes, Led Fight to Kill MTO

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In an abrupt departure from her role as a champion for liberal causes, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski spearheaded a congressional effort to kill a program that moves poor families out of the inner city to better neighborhoods, mostly in the suburbs.

Congress earlier this month rescinded $171 million earmarked for expanding the program, called Moving to Opportunity. The money, which for almost a year had gone unspent by HUD, was set aside for a counseling program for Section 8 recipients who are working or in job training.

Baltimore is one of five cities participating in MTO, a pilot program run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While a similar program has drawn praise for improving the lives of poor people in Chicago, MTO has become a lightning rod here: Residents and politicians in heavily blue-collar eastern Baltimore County have attacked it, saying the program will push crime into their neighborhoods.

The senator said she opposed MTO because it had been mishandled by the local agencies charged with implementing it, dooming it to failure. She added that she prefers the counseling program with which HUD plans to replace it, because it more directly rewards the working poor and screens participants by requiring them to work and subjecting them to criminal background checks.

"There are some legitimate concerns" about crime, Ms. Mikulski added.

In the past, Ms. Mikulski has used her post as chair of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees HUD to serve as an advocate for public housing in Baltimore. For example, she was a driving force in securing a $50 million federal grant announced last year that is earmarked for the rebuilding of the Lafayette Courts public housing project in East Baltimore.

And perhaps it is her history of support for Baltimore that has kept Ms. Mikulski from drawing heat for killing MTO, a program favored by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner.

MTO aims to move poor people into neighborhoods with better schools, living conditions and job opportunities on the theory that a better environment would encourage their climb from poverty.

But Ms. Mikulski knows that even if her suburban constituents are inclined to help the poor, some don't want to do it by having them move in next door.

Still, the idea of dispersing the poor from the densely packed neighborhoods where they have been segregated for the better part of this century has plenty of merit, housing advocates say. But it also has all the political appeal of forced school busing.

Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of HUD, announced plans in May to make dispersing the poor a centerpiece of the nation's housing policy. In Baltimore, that prospect has stirred loud protests because many people fear that MTO would do no more than export the problems of the inner city to their neighborhoods.

One baffling aspect of the protests is that under MTO, no poor families would have moved to many of Baltimore County's blue-collar neighborhoods, because those neighborhoods already have poor populations exceeding the program's limits. MTO also calls for counseling for half its participants.

The protests also ignore the fact that 840 families who receive Section 8 rental subsidies from the city already live in Baltimore -- County. Other city Section 8 recipients live in other Baltimore-area counties and, in a few instances, have moved to places as far flung as Greensboro, N.C., and San Diego (as the program's guidelines allow).

All of the rhetoric surrounding MTO obscures the promise of the program, which is to thin the problems that render many inner-city neighborhoods virtually unmanageable. The program also promises to reverse the segregation that advocates say was a bulwark of planning for housing Baltimore's poor -- especially blacks.

"There is a long history of discrimination and segregation when it comes to government housing policies in Baltimore," said Susan Goering, legal director for Maryland's American Civil Liberties Union. "They conspired to keep African Americans in 'the ghetto.' When public housing started being built, it was located race-consciously."

About 67 percent of the Baltimore region's poor live in the city, according to the ACLU. The problem is worse for the black poor than it is for whites: 75 percent of poor blacks live in poor neighborhoods, while only 12 percent of the white poor are packed into poor neighborhoods, according to the ACLU study.

Moreover, the study found that 61 percent of the area's poor whites live in the suburbs, while 86 percent of poor blacks live in the city.

And while there is strong sentiment that the poor -- especially poor blacks -- create their own bad environments and are beyond help, that doesn't quite square with the facts.

The concept of dispersing poor people certainly has worked well in the few places where it has been tried. In Chicago, a court order allowed 5,000 of the city's poor to be moved out of that city's mean housing projects, mostly to suburban neighborhoods.

"It was very much a success," said James E. Rosenbaum, a Northwestern University professor whose study of the Chicago experience has been cited by federal advocates of the MTO program.

In his study, Mr. Rosenbaum found that poor families who moved from projects to wealthier neighborhoods were uplifted by their new surroundings. Children achieved better in school than did their counterparts who remained in their old neighborhoods. More of them went on to college, and fewer landed in trouble. Also, a higher percentage of the parents ended up working once they lived in neighborhoods where jobs were easily available.

Ms. Mikulski pointed out that the idea worked in Chicago, which has been described as the nation's most segregated city, because it was implemented quietly, in cooperation with suburban communities and with a population that was screened and counseled.

The political winds whipped up in Baltimore about MTO made such cooperation unlikely in Baltimore, she said.

But Mr. Henson, the city housing commissioner, said that programs like MTO must work if poverty is to ever really to be attacked and the city is to ever reverse its steady decline.

"Baltimore should not, and cannot continue to be the repository for the region's poor," he said. "We just can't keep making the same mistake over and over again because it is politically polite."

Michael Fletcher is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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