SOME PEOPLE would argue that the months of wrangling over a plan to shift city public housing tenants into the suburbs has been much ado about little -- a headline-grabbing, talk radio-agitator of a topic that involves only a few hundred families within a region with 2.4 million people. But the issue has truly been more than that. It has come to embody society's myriad schisms, between poor and rich, black and white, city and suburb, conservative and liberal.
Concessions hammered out between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and county housing agencies and the American Civil Liberties Union have helped to address the very valid concerns that suburban leaders had when an initial accord was struck between Baltimore and the ACLU.
Under the revised plan, the demolition of the city high-rises will be slowed so poor people won't be "dumped" into the counties. A cap will keep an excessive number of city tenants from relocating in Baltimore County, and may redirect scores of them to Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and other counties who have the wherewithal, not to mention the self-interest, to contribute to solving a regional problem. (Last we looked, Carroll County was part of the metropolitan area, but its leadership has been AWOL on this issue.) The counties would also help shape a "mobility counseling" plan to winnow out applicants whose criminal pasts make them poor candidates for a transfer program.
We were struck by one provision that would hold the number of Section 8 families below 20 percent in any one complex. That seemed high (although Baltimore County officials said that standard compares favorably to some county complexes with half their renters on subsidies.) Still, it would seem that having a fifth of an apartment complex on subsidized housing undermines the premise of dispersing poverty.
If this plan goes through, many suburbanites will ask why their taxes should pay for someone to live in a decent neighborhood like theirs when they had to work hard to get there. It's a valid question, but those tax dollars are already being spent to house people in decrepit conditions, where children can't learn and the cycle of poverty merely rolls on. Is it not better to invest in a new strategy that has worked elsewhere and might here, too?