Reacting to neighborhood complaints, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III plans to exclude tenants from rental assistance programs if they have criminal records.
Mr. Henson said he wants to "reinvent" the way Baltimore chooses and counsels families for the federal subsidy program known as Section 8.
In addition to screening for criminal activity, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City would:
* Hire social workers to deal with neighborhood disputes and to help tenants adjust to new surroundings.
* Provide families with counseling about where to find housing, including in the suburbs.
* Require landlords to be trained about the rental assistance program.
"The Section 8 program will be for people who are exemplary tenants and, but for their income, are ready to move on to a better life," Mr. Henson said. "It will be a reward for good behavior rather than a right people have because of poverty.
"The idea is to do everything we possibly can to work with communities as opposed to communities believing the program
is against them. We hope to reinvent the whole program," he said.
Community groups across the city have complained that an influx of Section 8 tenants has concentrated poor families and destabilized neighborhoods as landlords collect government rent while allowing properties to deteriorate.
Neighborhood leaders blame the Housing Authority for failing to discipline the minority of tenants and landlords who abuse the program.
Mr. Henson said the city has about 8,900 Section 8 tenants, who pay 30 percent of their income for rent while federal funds cover the rest.
He said the new plan would be phased in to cover the 500 to 600 certificates that become available every year.
Jane M. Conover of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association said Mr. Henson has held several meetings since the fall with neighborhood leaders and the housing group to find ways to make Section 8 "more community-friendly."
Housing and community activists gave Mr. Henson's plans generally favorable reviews yesterday.
"If the city can follow through with what they're proposing, I think it would work," said Cynthia R. Tensley, president of the Carrollton Ridge Community Association in Southwest Baltimore. "A lot of the past problem with Section 8 has been an inability to follow through."
Glenn L. Ross, president of the McElderry Park Community Association in East Baltimore, said the plan was positive.
"My faith in [the] housing [department] is very shaky. We keep hearing promises, promises, promises and nothing ever happens."
Federal officials said Mr. Henson was taking advantage of revised U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules, which took effect in October, that make it easier for housing authorities to eject irresponsible tenants and landlords from the rental assistance program.
The rules say he does not need further HUD approval to revamp Section 8 in Baltimore.
William F. Tamburrino, director of HUD's Maryland public housing office, said the rules give housing officials broader authority to keep families out of the program "if there is a preponderance of evidence of prior criminal activity." That could mean arrests, not just convictions, he said.
Mr. Henson told the Butchers Hill Community Association on Wednesday night that people with "any type of violence in their past, any type of drug convictions would be excluded" from the program for five years.
Barbara Samuels, a housing lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said that evicting tenants convicted of drug offenses or violent crimes was widely accepted, but that background checks could be unfair if they are based on arrests, not convictions.
"People are presumed innocent unless proved otherwise," she said. "There are very different rates of arrest based on race, where you live and so on. The results can be harsh on innocent family members with the bad luck to be in the same household as someone arrested."
Ms. Samuels applauded Mr. Henson's plan to show tenants rental housing both in the city and the suburbs. The ACLU sued the city and HUD last year to prevent officials from relocating public housing tenants in poor, black neighborhoods. Under a proposed settlement of the suit, more than 2,000 such families would move to predominantly white, middle-class areas over six years.
Mr. Henson's plan is not part of the proposed settlement, though the two approaches share an emphasis on screening and counseling tenants.
Mr. Henson estimates that under his new plan, only about 25 percent of eligible Section 8 families -- perhaps 100 to 150 a year -- will move to the suburbs. He said most tenants would stay in Baltimore to be near relatives, friends, jobs and transportation.
He said the Housing Authority would add three Section 8 housing inspectors, for a total of 17; hire eight social workers; and provide three relocation counselors. Section 8 administrative fees, previously used to pay for security at public housing high rises, would finance most of the program.