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Scare tactics bring down federal housing program

On a warm, late September evening, 300 Dundalk and Essex residents met at Dundalk Middle School to beat a dead horse.

For months, politicians and community activists had whipped eastern Baltimore County residents into a frenzy over a small, experimental federal program that will move 285 Baltimore families from public housing into better neighborhoods in the city and surrounding suburbs.

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They told the audiences that the city wanted to empty its housing projects into their neighborhoods, and their listeners believed it.

"More than 18,000 families are coming to Baltimore County," activist Jerry Hersl told the Dundalk audience. "What is the grand agenda?"

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It was all a political hoax. There never was a plan to move 18,000 families to Baltimore County, and county officials estimate that no more than 40 of the 285 families will choose to move to the county under the Moving to Opportunity program.

The $149 million for expansion of MTO was killed by Congress in August, a victim of the Eastside backlash. Once the 285 families move, MTO will be history.

But there was still political mileage in that dead horse a month later, and politicians swarmed around the carcass.

"Go look at all the empty houses in Baltimore -- but drive with your doors locked. Why don't they put them there?" Helen Delich Bentley, the district's Republican congresswoman, told the Dundalk audience.

"They're spending our money without thinking it through," said County Executive Roger B. Hayden.

"They have to teach them the basics of living," Democratic Del. Louis L. DePazzo said.

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According to those who supported it and those who fought it, MTO died because it came up in an election year. The key players in its destruction were Mr. Hersl, 39, who formed a political action committee, Responsible Citizens Against MTO; Raymond C. Shiflet, 68, a retired railroad electrician and Hersl partner who took up MTO to bring his fledgling Eastern Political Association some attention; and Mr. DePazzo, who was seeking a seat on the County Council and used MTO to bludgeon his opponent in the primary.

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Their campaign revived old racial fears in the blue-collar neighborhoods of the Eastside and struck a nerve among residents who said they were tired of what they saw as government handouts to people who won't work.

The controversy brought national television cameras to Eastside meetings, including those from CBS' "60 Minutes." It stunned high-ranking officials in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and buckled the knees of Maryland's U.S. senators.

MTO was conceived during the Bush administration and funded under the Clinton administration with bipartisan support in Congress, including the votes of Maryland's entire delegation.

The five-city pilot program, in addition to providing Section 8 housing funds, offered intensive counseling to half the families that signed up. These families would be monitored over 10 years to see whether counseling enabled them to improve their lives.

Section 8 provides federal subsidies for low-income renters in private housing.

Baltimore's initial share of MTO money was $12.5 million. Most federal programs are announced with great fanfare, but this one arrived almost unnoticed.

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The Baltimore Housing Authority contracted MTO's implementation to the Community Assistance Network (CAN), a private, nonprofit social services agency in Baltimore County. CAN briefed county officials on MTO Sept. 22, 1993. Though county officials were upset because they hadn't been brought in on the planning, they did not foresee the turmoil ahead.

Nor was there much discussion in March, when Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and others briefed executives from the surrounding counties -- including Mr. Hayden -- at a meeting of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a group that focuses on regional issues.

One high-ranking HUD official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says HUD clearly didn't see the problem coming.

"They were involved in the nuts and bolts and planned to go to the community with it when they got everything together," he said. "They just didn't believe such a small program would attract that kind of attention. There was never any effort to keep it a secret."

Daniel P. Henson III, executive director of the Baltimore Housing Authority, is bemused by the anger.

"We've issued 9,000 Section 8 certificates over the years," he said. "I don't understand the fuss over 285 families, most of whom will stay in the city. And why would the good people of Dundalk and Essex think we would want [program participants] to come to an area that's already depressed?"

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As of Oct. 17, there were 3,825 Section 8 recipients in the county, of whom about a third are elderly or disabled, according to Frank W. Welch, director of the county's Department of Community Development. Of that number, he said, 670 have come from Baltimore over the past five to 10 years.

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MTO's troubles actually began in January, when Del. E. Farrell Maddox of White Marsh, chairman of the county's House delegation, gave Mr. DePazzo copies of MTO-related correspondence between Jean Jung, CAN's board president, and Mr. Welch.

"I'm opposed to MTO because it's just moving problems from one place to another," Mr. Maddox said later, "but I didn't want to make a political football out of it. Lou went in a different direction. I didn't want to see the 'for sale' signs going up and the blockbusters moving in. If it hadn't been an election year, I doubt that it would have ever come up."

Mr. DePazzo was running in the primary for the council against the only candidate who supported MTO.

His opponent, Ms. Jung, 61, became a target of opportunity because of her association with CAN. Mr. DePazzo beat her with 77 percent of the vote and has no opposition in the general election. Ms. Jung believes that had she not run against Mr. DePazzo, there would have been no furor over MTO.

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"I'm distressed that one person's political shenanigans have made Dundalk residents look like a bunch of rednecks," she said.

Mr. DePazzo passed the MTO letters to others, but got little reaction until he told Mr. Hersl, an acquaintance from other civic activities.

Mr. Hersl, 39, a civil engineer for the General Services Administration who has lived in Rosedale for 10 years, took up the issue with enthusiasm.

In April, he walked across the street from his Washington office on Seventh Street to the HUD building, wandered the halls and finally stuck his head in the door of the office of Assistant Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

He asked if anyone there knew about MTO and was sent to the office of John Goering, a supervisor of MTO implementation. Mr. Goering "rolled out the red carpet," Mr. Hersl said. A Goering staffer gave him all the information available.

Mr. Hersl and Mr. Shiflet began pushing opposition to MTO at community meetings. Politicians began to take notice, but weren't sure which way to lean. At one gathering called to discuss MTO, Mr. Hersl recalls, there were 14 candidates and seven citizens. The candidates gave routine campaign speeches and departed.

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But MTO was a hot topic by May, and the issue blew up in June, jTC spurred in part by a flier prepared reputedly by an Essex landlord. The flier said that the government was trying to keep MTO a secret and that Baltimore was going to empty the residents of "crime-infested Lafayette and Murphy Homes" into Essex. It said that the county had created a "riot squad," presumably to handle the migration.

HUD and CAN officials, now alert to grass-roots anger, invited 78 community associations to the first of four planned meetings to explain the program. About 150 people turned out at Chesapeake High School in Essex on June 21 to hear Marge Turner, a HUD official, explain MTO. Ms. Turner was hooted down three minutes into her speech.

"It was a lynching," said a HUD official. "They weren't there to listen, and I think those who shouted the loudest were put up to it." CAN decided more public meetings would be unproductive.

Mr. Hayden jumped into the fray in late August. He wrote a letter to Henry G. Cisneros, secretary of HUD, asking that MTO be delayed, a move his political opponents called grandstanding. He is now asking that MTO be canceled.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Political Association had scheduled more anti-MTO meetings through the summer. By September, the MTO conflict was attracting national attention.

Then the players learned that Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, chairwoman of the House-Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees HUD, had quietly axed the program in August by rescinding $149 million that had been appropriated to expand it.

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The first phase -- 285 families in Baltimore and 6,200 nationally -- would run its course for two years, and then MTO would disappear.

Ms. Mikulski said MTO had been "bungled by the city and the group that was supposed to administer it. There has not been enough consultation with the community."

One county Democratic politician, who asked not to be named, said Ms. Mikulski "had a concern that homeless families with Section 8 certificates would destroy neighborhoods. Opponents would use the Section 8 program and MTO as a battering ram against the Democrats."

Senator Mikulski said through a spokesman that the $149 million from a previous fiscal year budget was "reprogrammed," because HUD had not spent it, and that the action was "not the result of political pressure."

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, running for re-election, was relatively quiet about MTO. On Oct. 7, he replied to a Dundalk resident who had asked about his stance on MTO with an answer that sounded much like Ms. Mikulski's.

The anti-MTO campaigners had won a remarkable victory. They had put two U.S. senators on the defensive, damaged HUD and killed MTO for the future.

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Ms. Mikulski's office has yet to say where the $149 million initially budgeted for MTO's expansion will go, despite several requests for information, but it is likely to go -- ironically -- into the Section 8 program, some officials think.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hersl and Mr. Shiflet still are riding the issue. They have been busy in the weeks before the general election soliciting as much as $3,000 each from politicians to get on an anti-MTO ticket they are putting together.

With his primary out of the way and his council seat assured, Mr. DePazzo says he's weary of the whole thing. And he's questioning the agenda of his one-time ally, Mr. Hersl.

"He asked me to help him get appointed to John Arnick's seat when Arnick resigned from the House of Delegates to take a judgeship," Mr. DePazzo said. "He also asked for $500 to support his anti-MTO ticket. I finally gave him $150, but now I've had all of Mr. Hersl I need."

Mr. DePazzo acknowledges he's paid a price for some remarks regarded as racist that he made about MTO families in the spring.

"What I actually said was, 'I'm not discussing race or poverty, but I'm concerned that they might send out people who have to be taught how to bathe, how not to steal, and how not to smoke pot.' " He says that the comment was "harsh," and not "politically correct."

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Mr. DePazzo continues to fight MTO, he says, because "it's what the people want."

He wrote to Senators Mikulski and Sarbanes on Oct. 5 demanding that MTO be stopped immediately, but acknowledges that he can't stop the MTO pilot program.

"I'm just sorry MTO came up in the silly season," he says.


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