Housing project residents tour suburban homes Program is designed to show alternatives to inner-city living


Seeking to acquaint inner-city dwellers with rental options elsewhere, Baltimore's housing authority has started running weekly tours of suburban apartment complexes for residents of the doomed Lexington Terrace public housing development.

The housing authority has run one or two tours a week since late January for residents of the 677-unit Westside housing project, which is set for demolition in July.

The tours, paid for with federal relocation funds, are part of city housing chief Daniel P. Henson III's new emphasis on "housing mobility" programs.

"I'm personally a strong believer in choice," Mr. Henson said. "Unfortunately, many residents of public housing and inner-city Baltimore have not had informed choice before."

Mobility plans counsel public housing tenants and give them rental-assistance certificates from the federal Section 8 program. Tenants can move anywhere in Maryland they can find a willing landlord.

But few Lexington Terrace residents are leaving the inner city. Many have moved to Poe Homes, a nearby public housing project. Fewer than a quarter of 110 families relocated have taken Section 8 certificates. Only a handful have moved to the suburbs.

Ruth Gamble, the housing authority's relocation director, said family and church ties, lack of transportation and fear of the unknown keep people close to home. In addition, Section 8 tenants must pay utilities, which are included in public housing rents.

"Nobody is being steered anywhere. We see our role as being a catalyst or the vehicle," she said.

The housing authority provided the vehicle on a recent, rainy weekday. Seven Lexington residents piled into two leased minivans and headed to Columbia.

Mary Coner, 48, wanted a two-bedroom apartment on a bus line. Raymond Wilson, 43, needed to be close to after-school child care. And, after living all her 26 years in public housing, Tanya Waters eagerly sought a change of scene.

As 18- wheelers whizzed by on Interstate 95, spraying the vans with mist, the Lexington residents chatted. It became clear Howard County was uncharted territory.

Ms. Waters, 26, has always lived in the same low-rise unit, first as a child and now as the mother of two young children. She said she wanted a Section 8 certificate because "you can go where you want to go. I think it's time for my children to interact with other races."

The group visited two apartment complexes. Rental agents asked that the complexes not be named. They feared that association with the Section 8 program, which houses 1.3 million low-income families nationwide, might scare off market-rate renters.

In 1994, Moving to Opportunity, a federal pilot program that helps poor, often black families move to middle-income areas, touched off such an uproar in predominantly white eastern Baltimore County that Congress killed plans to expand the project.

Ms. Coner, who has lived in public housing for 11 years, was

taken with the first apartment she saw: "This is really spacious." The two-bedroom unit with den rents for $777 a month. (Section 8 renters would pay 30 percent of their income; the federal government would cover the rest, up to the rent ceiling for Columbia.)

Charlene Kendrick, 24, who has four children, liked the woodsy quiet of the area: "As long as I have schools and shopping nearby, nothing else really matters. I want to go as far away as I can. The quieter, the farther, the better."

As the vans cruised to the next apartment complex, Michelle Taylor, who has five children and can't fit in an apartment, gazed at the neat, single-family houses: "Could I have one of those?" she asked.

"I'm sold," said Mr. Wilson, the only man and the only full-time worker in the group, after touring a two-bedroom, $750-a-month unit at the second complex. "Look at all this space."

Mr. Wilson said he hoped to transfer from the East Baltimore fast-food restaurant where he works to a Columbia outlet.

A week after the tour, Mr. Wilson, Ms. Kendrick and Ms. Waters remained interested. The others would stay in the city.

Ms. Coner decided to move to newly constructed public housing in Northwest Baltimore. "It was just too far out for me," she said of Columbia.

Mr. Wilson said he was applying for a Columbia apartment. "It's the area, the way it looks, the quietness, the school," he said. "Sometimes you need something positive to happen to make other positive changes in your life."

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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