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Baltimore's Public Housing Sheds Shell, Gets New Face

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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.

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.

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