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Neighbors air fears over plan for poor


Don't tell Donna Gillespie about the drawbacks of city living.

As a 15-year resident of Northeast Baltimore, she accepts the higher car insurance premiums and tax bills, and the worries over the adequacy of public schools for her 5-year-old daughter.

But when Gillespie watched a foreclosed house on her block sell for $30,000 less than market value, she panicked.

That fear is rising, after officials unveiled plans last week to move 40 poor families into similar houses around the city, including on Orlando Avenue, where Gillespie lives.

"I love my house, I love my neighborhood, and I would be perfectly happy to stay here for the rest of my life," said Gillespie, a 39-year-old office worker. "But I can see my property value plummeting."

The worries stem from the latest chapter in Baltimore's struggle to deal with its widespread poverty, as some middle-class areas prepare to receive former residents of public housing developments in the city.

The public housing initiative is an outgrowth of a court decree settling a 1995 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that accused the city of intentionally segregating poor, black families in dilapidated public housing projects.

To break the concentration of poverty in a city that is home to nearly two-thirds of the families on public assistance in Maryland, the court decree provided for families to be moved into neighborhoods that would provide a better quality of life.

In a plan being considered by the city Board of Estimates, 10 of the 15 properties are in Northeast Baltimore. Three are in Southeast Baltimore and two are on the eastern city line. The goal is to lessen the impact on any one neighborhood. Up to 40 families would be moved eventually.

"This is not destabilizing neighborhoods. These are foreclosed properties that would be sitting there abandoned," said Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU in Maryland. "They are eyesores being turned into assets."

After city residents registered their concerns last week, the Board of Estimates deferred a vote on approving $4.1 million to purchase and renovate the first 15 houses, allowing for more discussion. The issue will be taken up again at Wednesday's meeting.

"I understand the lawsuit and that they want to live in other places, but I want to live in a nicer place, too," said Craig Newell, an Orlando Avenue resident who lives next to one of the proposed sites. "Do I sue the city?"

Of particular concern to neighbors is whether the strangers moving in will be as committed as they are to the neighborhoods. "Are they going to have the skills and wherewithal to make sure the properties are going to be kept up?" Newell asked.

ACLU officials say such fears are unwarranted. Goering points to an independent study of 1,000 court-ordered, scattered-site housing units in Yonkers, N.Y., that showed no negative effects in terms of crime or deterioration of the area. "We're talking about 15 families in all of Northeast Baltimore," Goering said.

Mitchell Klein is an organizer for the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which represents low-income residents. He argues that the city has little choice but to implement the housing initiative - which requires the relocation of former public housing residents to be in neighborhoods with a minority population of less than 26 percent, a poverty rate below 10 percent and subsidized housing rate below 5 percent.

"It's not even a matter of agreeing with the ACLU," Klein said. "It's the federal law, the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968."

All parties involved agree that the success of such programs rests with the ability of government agencies to provide the proper counseling and tenant support.

In 1994, the federal government began a program called Moving To Opportunity that allowed poor families to move into subsidized housing in the suburbs. About 285 Baltimore families took advantage of it.

Follow-up studies by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County showed that families that were given proper counseling and support - as basic as providing trash cans and lawn mowers - blended into their new communities with few problems.

"It depends on the family and the agency doing the counseling," said Richard Dorn, executive director of the Community Assistance Network, a nonprofit agency.

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