Get tough on housing, official urges Henson wants tighter admission standards for public units; Task force is assigned; Tenants with jobs, broader range of families sought


With record numbers of families seeking public housing, Baltimore housing chief Daniel P. Henson III said yesterday he wants to toughen admission standards while making it easier for working families to move in.

Mr. Henson announced he is directing a task force to come up with new ways to get a broader spectrum of families into Baltimore's 18,000 publicly subsidized apartments.

His initiative comes as the number of poor families and elderly people waiting for public housing has climbed to 32,000, the highest since 1993.

Tightening admission standards, part of a nationwide trend to reform public housing, has a two-fold purpose: to reduce waiting lists and create a safer, more stable environment.

Federal subsidies are drying up, the Clinton administration is encouraging broad changes and Congress is considering giving local housing authorities more control.

"It is clear to me we can not in the long term house all these people," Mr. Henson said. "We're harmed in this process by our success. We get a lot of people from other jurisdictions who see Baltimore City as a good place to live if you require public housing."

The task force, which will be chaired by Mr. Henson and made up of at least 15 housing officials, tenants and community leaders, is to make recommendations within three to four months. Mr. Henson said he wants the group to consider everything from requiring that a certain number of tenants have jobs to offering incentives to veterans and screening applicants for criminal records.

Mr. Henson has advocated some of the same ideas in his plan to "reinvent" the federal rental assistance program known as Section 8.

Under the plan he unveiled last month, prospective tenants could be excluded if they have criminal records. Families would receive extensive counseling on where to find housing, including in the suburbs, and landlords would undergo training.

In Baltimore, nearly 9,000 families receive the Section 8 rental subsidies. Another 18,000 live in public housing, which is built by the federal government and maintained by local housing authorities.

The federal government has required for more than a decade that local authorities make room in public housing first for the most needy: the homeless, the disabled, people in substandard living arrangements and people spending more than 50 percent of their income on rent.

Prefernce system criticized

But U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros has spearheaded a movement to dismantle the system of federal preferences and allow cities to come up with their own.

Mr. Henson said yesterday that special treatment of the homeless in particular led to complaints from longtime residents of public housing. Many of the homeless families who moved in had serious drug and alcohol problems and were considered disruptive, he said.

In establishing new standards, Mr. Henson said he is considering the example of New York City, which is screening applicants more rigorously, stepping up evictions of residents with criminal records and encouraging working families to live in public housing.

Jobs could be required

One of the thorniest issues would be requiring that some tenants have jobs to apply for public housing, Mr. Henson acknowledged.

A year ago, Mr. Henson came under fierce criticism when he proposed that all tenants renting public housing apartments do some community service duce the wait for public housing, but voiced strong misgivings about a work requirement.

"Somebody's got to come up with the employment," she said. "What about sick people, what are we going to do with them? What about people who aren't able to get work? I don't think that's going to work not unless they plan to have someone standing there to hire people."

Disincentives noted

Advocates for reform say current rules, under which the rent increases in proportion to tenants' income, often create a disincentive for residents to get jobs and for those with jobs to stay in public housing.

Baltimore has always had a long wait for public housing because virtually none exists in the surrounding suburbs, expert in Anne Arundel County. But while in demand, many of the public housing developments have deteriorated because of crime, poor maintenance and the overall poverty of residents, many of whom live on incomes of less than $7, 000 a year.

The city has 807 fewer public housing apartments because it demolished Lafayette Courts on the east side in August.

They are being replaced, but the city is about to tear down 677 apartments in the Lexington Terrace high-rise development on the west side.

White House blueprint

Mr. Henson's ideas appear to be squarely in line with Clinton administration thinking. Mr. Cisneros recently circulated a policy blueprint for public housing that advocates:

Tightening admissions rules to screen out tenants with a history of drug abuse or criminal activity.

Tightening eviction rules to set a "one strike and you're out" policy for public housing residents.

Reforming rent rules to help working families stay in public housing.

Encouraging lease requirements that force parents to make sure their children attend high school.

Legislation in the the works

Gordon Cavanaugh, general counsel for the Washington-based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, said legislation now before Congress would dismantle the system of federal preferences that has governed admission to public housing in recent years.

The proposed reforms, which have received Senate approval and are expected to reach the House floor this month, would allow more "working-poor" families to live in public housing.

He said they are driven by two factors: a belief that "families would fare better if there was some broader mix of social and income types," and severe funding cuts that will make it impossible to maintain public housing unless authorities can charge higher rents.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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