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Baltimore Public-Housing Tenants Begin a Rent Strike

February 24, 1993 GMT

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Desiree Hilton is fed up. Her 3-year-old was burned on an exposed pipe, a rat tried to squeeze through a hole above her toilet and big chunks of plaster are falling from the bathroom ceiling.

″It is cold, never any heat. I got a busted pipe and water coming up through the floor,″ Ms. Hilton, 21, said of her $89-a-month apartment in a housing project. ″The drug dealers, they have taken over the building.″

She and 66 other families at the Lexington Terrace high-rise complex in west Baltimore have launched a rent strike to force the city to fix their homes.

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They began withholding their rent earlier this month despite a city promise to find them someplace else to live.

″We’ve been told a lot of things before,″ said Lorraine Ledbetter, president of the tenants council. ″This is some insurance to get them to do what they say.″

Baltimore’s public housing high-rises have an 18 percent vacancy rate because conditions are so bad that some poor people refuse to live in them. Meanwhile, there are 26,800 families waiting for public housing.

Nowhere are the problems more apparent than at Lexington Terrace, one of 18 public housing high-rises.

″The plaster over my bathroom tub, all of that is falling, it is coming apart and peeling. ... There’s brown sewage coming down my wall,″ said Brenda Thomas, 38, who was paying $79 for a three-bedroom apartment until she decided to join other strikers in the 11-story building.

Heating problems have forced Ms. Thomas to use her oven to warm the apartment, causing her walls to sweat and mildew.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke promised to spend $2.5 million to renovate the 110-unit building after spending part of the night at Lexington Terrace on Jan. 29. He blamed maintenance problems on drug dealers who won’t let city workers in the buildings. Engineers are now deciding whether the building, built in the late 1950s, should be torn down.

Robert W. Hearn stepped down Monday as city housing commissioner and was reassigned to another post in the Schmoke administration.

Several City Council members had called for Hearn’s resignation after it was reported that about $42 million in federal development money had not been spent by the city even though housing projects needed extensive repairs.

Schmoke and Hearn blamed federal over-regulation for problems at Lexington Terrace and other projects. They said red tape prevented the city from building low-rise housing more suitable for families and renovating vacant rowhouses.

In 1989, city officials came up with a plan to tear down five high-rises at the Lafayette Courts housing project and build low-rise housing.

Schmoke discussed the project with the regional Housing and Urban Development office in Philadelphia and with former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp. But the city said it was unable to convince HUD that it was a good idea.

″In the meantime we didn’t want to use that money to renovate housing that we knew would be in the same situation in five years,″ said Clint Coleman, the mayor’s spokesman.

Bill Tamburrino, director of HUD’s public housing division in Baltimore, said the plan had its merits, but the city never submitted a formal application.

HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros discovered an unspent $11.1 billion when he took under the Clinton administration, including Baltimore’s $42 million. More than half of the money is earmarked for renovating public housing.

Cisneros toured Lexington Terrace with Schmoke earlier this month and said he would do what he can to allow more flexible use of HUD money.

In the meantime, the Lexington Terrace tenants wait for their day in court.

The striking tenants have placed $6,800 in rent money in escrow accounts and are being represented for free by 15 law students at the University of Baltimore.

″We wanted to help the tenants because their rent strike was not going to be legal and they would get evicted, letting the Housing Authority off the hook,″ said Marla Hollandsworth, a law professor.

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