Singing the praises of MTO Program has moved 81 families, including 50 who stayed in city


Visiting with Annie Ingram is like attending a revival meeting. Exuberantly, she praises the Lord and Moving to Opportunity -- in that order.

Thanks to MTO, a controversial federal housing program, Ms. Ingram and her two sons left the Murphy Homes public housing complex in Baltimore in July, settling in a two-bedroom duplex in the 500 block of East 39th Street.

Now, she has a new life -- one that provides some insights as Baltimore and suburban officials squabble over a legal settlement that also would shift the poor out of inner-city public housing. That proposed settlement comes in a discrimination lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city.

"My next door neighbors, who are white, are tutoring my $H 6-year-old son, Mitchell, to help him in his new school," Ms. Ingram says, sitting in her spacious living room. "I haven't seen any resentment; everything is going smoothly."

After a little more than a year in operation, MTO appears to provide these lessons: The majority of inner-city residents do not want to move to suburban counties, far from their churches, schools and friends. But in their new homes, whether in Baltimore or more distant counties, participants have shown signs of developing very suburban tastes -- even requesting gardening lessons.

Still, landlord resistance to tenants with rent subsidies is tough to overcome -- even after tenants receive valuable counseling. And some people who move have trouble leaving the inner city behind. One participant's son says life in the new neighborhood is too quiet and spends his time hanging out with friends back in Baltimore's public housing.

The proposed settlement of the ACLU's class-action suit has focused attention on the MTO program. The aim of the suit is to break up the segregation of black families in public housing by giving 1,342 families a chance to take rent subsidies to more affluent, largely white neighborhoods throughout the region.

Baltimore County officials, charging that they weren't consulted about the settlement, have vowed to block it. Last week, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said House GOP leaders had agreed to bar the use of federal funds in such a settlement, but much could change as Congress debates the issue.

So far, Ms. Ingram, who chose to remain in the city, is pleased with her move under MTO, which was created to measure the value of counseling people with federal rent subsidies.

She had created a desperate life for herself, shooting heroin and smoking crack cocaine and becoming homeless off and on until two years ago, when she overheard a street minister say, "You have to give your life to Christ."

"I was so miserable I would've given my life to King Kong," says Ms. Ingram, who graduated from Lake Clifton High School in 1976. "I overdosed twice and had to be revived by paramedics. My mother died when I was 12 and I lived with cousins. I thought life was a party."

Now, she literally kicks up her heels when she says she is off welfare. "Doors opened for me when I found God, and the father of my children even started paying child support."

Six mornings a week, she takes the No. 8 bus to her temporary job as a sorting clerk in the Fayette Street post office, while her sister watches her children. Much of their spare time is spent at Church of the Disciples on Harford Road.

"I'm jealous. My sister prays more than I do," she says.

So far, MTO has relocated 81 families, including 50 who chose to stay in the city. Of the rest, 23 have moved to Baltimore County, seven to Howard County and one to Anne Arundel County. About 60 families in the counseling program have yet to be placed.

Relocations have been tougher than expected because of landlord resistance and a shortage of affordable housing, national and local housing officials say. But the Baltimore-area MTO program has done better than those in other cities; movement in Chicago and New York is at a virtual standstill, for example.

"I think MTO has proved that counseling works," says Robert P. Gajdys, executive director of the Community Assistance Network, a nonprofit Baltimore County-based social services agency under contract to provide counseling for MTO families. "Many people who weren't working are now working or in training programs, and the families have integrated well into neighborhoods."

All of the families who have moved so far are headed by single mothers, says Ruth Crystal, MTO project director for CAN. Most get some form of public assistance in addition to so-called Section 8 rent subsidies.

"It takes many calls to landlords before we find one willing to rent to a Section 8 client," she said of the Baltimore program. "They've heard the horror stories about Section 8, and they don't know that MTO is different because of the counseling."

Internal problems have occurred. Of 187 families who went through MTO orientation, 27 dropped out for various reasons and eight allowed their Section 8 certificates to expire.

"Some had unrealistic expectations on the quality of the housing they could afford, and some didn't want to move more than three or four blocks from where they were living, which meant they were still in a poverty area," Ms. Crystal said.

Some landlords visit prospective tenants in their homes, and MTO counselors warn shoddy housekeepers that they must improve if they want to move. Counselors also will try to remedy problems of personal grooming, she said.

The proposed settlement of the ACLU suit also calls for counseling -- $2.3 million would be spent on counseling related to housing, jobs, schools and transportation.

Barbara Samuels, an ACLU lawyer involved in the settlement, says the relocations can be accomplished over a five-year period: "We're going to concentrate on landlord recruitment, and on identifying suitable housing units."

Like Ms. Ingram, Shirley Hudnall is overjoyed with her new surroundings, just off Liberty Road in Baltimore County.

She surveys the sunny, two-bedroom apartment that she shares with her 12-year-old son, Bryant, and revels in the peace and quiet of her neighborhood after several years on Lafayette Avenue in Baltimore.

Ms. Hudnall, a 1982 graduate of Coppin State, has a degenerative disease of the joints, but works as a volunteer in the MTO office.

"I always wanted a home with a white picket fence," she says. "This isn't it, but it's fantastic compared to the drugs and shootings we left behind. I always had to be careful what my son wore outside. If it was too nice, someone would take it from him.

"He had reservations about leaving, but now he is enthusiastic about his new school and school mates," she says. Bryant attends Oakwood Middle School.

For Betty Jones, relocation has created a new problem -- one common to several families in the MTO program. She is worried about her 15-year-old son, Derrick, who keeps going back to his former neighborhood to hang out.

"I tell him there's nothing on the streets for him, but he won't listen," she says. "He says this neighborhood is too quiet."

Still, Ms. Jones likes the quiet after the turmoil of public housing.

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