Last week, a series by staff writer Jackson Diehl told how, while some developers made handsome profits, several federally subsidized housing developments in Prince George's County have become disasters for residents, taxpayers and communities. What now? After so much mismanagement and official neglet, can this battered housing be made safe, decent and financially sound?
Officials at HUD want to try. They regard the Prince George's projects, and thousands of similar buildings elsewhere, as valuable housing resources that should revived unless the rescue will cost more than starting from scratch. HUD's area office has already changed the management of several projects in Prince George's and has started improving security and making essential repairs. According to that office, since HUD took over three sections of the Pumpkin Hill complex (now renamed South Laurel Mutual Homes) in February, the agency has spent $370,000 there beyond the income from rent.
For the longer run, HUD plans to redesign some of the projects, rehabilitate them all, shore up their financing, find new private owners where needed - and then watch closely to keep things from going sour again. It's a large order, but there are reasons for hope. Besides a stronger commitment, HUD does have more resources than in the past. The agency has also learned more about how to design and manage lower-income housing and work effectively with tenant groups.
Yet HUD cannot revie this housing single-handedly. The quality of future private sponsers will be a crucial ingredient. So will the county's attitude. While Prince George's has a solid rent-subsidy program, many local officials fovor reducing the concentrations of lower-income family housing. Toward that end, they have been trying to shut down the subsidized complexs with the most problems and vacancies. But the shortage of affordable housing is so great that the county should encourage HUD's efforts to turn most of those buildings around. The county could help by investing some of its federal community development funds in recreational facilities and other improvements in those neighborhoods.
There is one major exception. That's Baber Village, the vacant, vandalized complex that has become the prime symbol of the housing programs' collapse. So far HUD has stubbornly blocked the county's attempts to raze Baber Village. But salvaging it might well cost more and create more political uproar than any 130 or so housing units are worth. HUD would probably gain more by admitting defeat and letting the county proceed with another kind of development - in exchange for county cooperation in other low-income housing ventures that have better chances for success.