Baltimore's Public Housing Sheds Shell, Gets New Face

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

With the push of a detonator, Baltimore's Lexington Terrace has been blasted from the skyline, crumbling floors of red bricks and leaving in a cloud of dust long-held beliefs about how to house the nation's poor.

In place of the five imploded high rises - some 660 apartments - 303 row houses are scheduled to be built. A business center and minority-owned businesses will sit alongside the subsidized housing. One hundred of the homes will be reserved for middle-income residents.

The destruction of one of the country's most downtrodden housing projects and plans to build low-level, multi-income housing in its place signals a shift in thinking among city officials here and those at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development - but one that is not without its problems.

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Today, creating viable, self-sufficient communities is a greater priority at HUD than simply providing housing for those in need, HUD officials say. Now more than ever, HUD is promoting public housing as a short-term alternative, not a life-time choice.

The change of heart has its roots in HOPE VI, a $480 million fund that grew out of a 1993 commission report, which concluded the government couldn't afford to simply rebuild decrepit buildings and that it needed to learn from its past mistakes.

Communities, the commission determined, need to have an input on subsidized housing plans, and housing needs to incorporate mixed-income families, says Chris Hornig, who oversees the HOPE VI project for HUD. HUD decided to have cities compete for funding, attaching stipulations such as 20 percent of the fund be set aside for community-support programs.

"For these developments, it's a total transformation," Mr. Hornig says of the demolition and rebuilding. "There is viable public housing around the country that we have no intention of demolishing. But for a place like Lexington Terrace, it's a fresh start in every way."

But questions are already arising over whether government officials can reverse decades-old patterns of poverty and if a city can entice middle-income residents to move to housing projects.

The stakes for improving public housing in Baltimore are higher than in most midsize cities. There, the segregation of poor blacks and whites is striking: 3 out of 4 blacks live in poor neighborhoods, while 3 out of 4 whites live in moderate to medium income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union is involved in a suit with the city for discriminating in its housing policies against the poor.

Former Albuquerque, N.M., mayor and policy consultant David Rusk last year ominously pronounced in his book, "Baltimore Unbound," that the city had to stop being the state's depository for the poor or face certain doom.

Baltimore metropolitan area's population has dropped 23 percent from 950,000 residents in 1950 to 736,000 in 1990, while the black population has increased to 60 percent - three-quarters of which live in poor neighborhoods. Of Baltimore's 90,000 whites, only 24 percent live in poor neighborhoods.

"Public housing is the single greatest mechanism for the concentration of poor blacks," Mr. Rusk said in an interview. "The way public housing came to be - there are projects for poor blacks and housing vouchers for poor whites."

The rebuilding of Lexington Terrace - and three of the city's other high-rise projects - is one important step in the process of turning those trends around, city officials say. "You can ride down the street in any major city in the country look around and say there's public housing, there is regular housing," says Daniel Henson III, executive director of Baltimore's Housing Authority. "My goal is have it look like regular housing, but have it clear as a picture on a mantel that this is a way up, not a way of life."

For observers and planners, success of the new projects depends on getting middle-income people to move into the communities.

Lexington Terrace will blend with the surrounding neighborhoods of Baltimore's famous working-class row homes. The area is close to the Inner Harbor, the city's tourist hub, and across the street from the University of Maryland Medical School and Law School, a job and business generator. Plans are in the works to build a business center and senior-citizen housing, and provide family counseling for residents. A private company will oversee Lexington Terrace, replacing the Housing Authority as property manager.

Efforts have been made to use minority businesses from the construction phase to the opening of the business center, which is slated to include a job-training service. Architects have used residents' suggestions and designed the houses with computer-ready cable and backyards with space for gardening and a cement patio.

"The idea is not to rebuild a better housing project, says Hornig, "but rebuild a community."

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