Private Discomfort in Public Housing

June 2006 / Abell Reports / Community Development

A cultural conflict is simmering in public housing, between longtime and elderly residents and younger disabled residents. The issues are security, lifestyle differences, safety—and ineffective communication.

Baltimore is dotted with high-rise public housing buildings originally built for senior citizens –familiar landmarks such as the two Lakeview Towers, W. 20th Street and Govans Manor. However, many Baltimoreans would be surprised to learn that these buildings are no longer senior-only. Indeed, more than a third of their occupied apartments are home to people with disabilities under the age of 62. In two of the buildings, a majority of the occupied apartments are home to non-elderly tenants with disabilities. These are people under the age of 62 – sometimes many years younger – who are deemed disabled under federal law and regulations. Some have physical challenges; others have mental disabilities or are recovering alcoholics and drugs users.

This demographic shift in the tenant population of these buildings stems from several factors – including changes in federal law, new attention to the needs of people with disabilities and a changing housing market that has provided more options for low-income senior citizens. But this change has also created problems for some residents that are going unresolved by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) and the broader community.

Interviews and conversations with roughly two dozen public housing residents make clear that there is a troubling culture clash taking place in some of these mixed-population buildings that house both the elderly and younger disabled residents. In some cases, younger residents – and the guests that visit them – often cause elderly residents to be concerned about their safety. In other cases, older residents object to the lifestyle, dress and objectionable language of some younger residents. While in others, older residents are distressed by drug dealing, panhandling and behavior they believe has no place in buildings that are home to senior citizens. Some HABC officials concede that the problems within the buildings are becoming worse as more non-elderly residents move in. At the same time, it’s also apparent that the needs of younger disabled residents are also not being well met by HABC.

The problems in these buildings have not received adequate attention from HABC, city and state officials, or from the private sector. In particular,  HABC has taken few assertive steps to address the readily apparent problems and officials say they lack the financial resources to develop meaningful responses, due largely to cuts in federal housing funds.

This report examines the problem, both nationally and in Baltimore, and offers recommendations for improving the quality of life for thousands of Baltimore public housing residents.