There are 11,400 public housing units in the District. As of March, some 2,066 were vacant, deteriorating, subject to vandalism, becoming more costly to renovate as weeks and months passed with thousands waiting on the housing list for a place to live. D.C. officials now say they can have a contractor ready to fix up a vacated apartment within three months. They add that it is impossible, with such a large inventory, to go much faster and keep vacancies down. Is this true?
There are 18,600 public housing units in Baltimore City. That is one-third more than in the District. In many cases, they are just as old as those in the District. Only 409 of those units are vacant. According to federal officials, housing advocacy groups and Baltimore housing authorities, vacated apartments there are re-rented in three to 10 days. Repairs occur on a much more timely basis. Private contracting is necessary only for major renovations and major fire damage. Public housing projects more than 40 years old are clean, well kept and in good condition.
The differences are striking, and in those differences are many lessons that the District would do well to apply now as it struggles to put its public housing into shape. In many cases, the difference is one of poor management. Unlike Baltimore, over the past several years the District was slow to repair vacant units and complete multi-million dollar federal remodeling projects. Routine maintenance went undone in occupied and aging buildings. Now, the District must seek out private contractors for much more costly work to catch up.
In Baltimore, federal modernization funds were promptly used to rehabilitate entire housing projects. The city never fell behind the curve. In southwest Baltimore, public housing repairs have been "regionalized." One central office handles 3,378 units. Specific crews are in charge of vacancy renovation, routine maintenance and emergency repairs. Some of those who had run separate maintenance crews before regionalization were put in charge of checking up on assigned jobs.
Instead of crisis maintenance -- waiting for problems to occur -- the idea is preventive maintenance. Inspection teams visit each housing unit to find problems before they get serious. The overall results are better housing conditions, fewer vacancies, less money lost from failing to collect rent on vacant units, less money wasted on major repair work that could have been avoided. These are some of the reasons why Baltimore is considered to have some of the best run public housing in the country. Have District officials ever thought of going to Baltimore to see why?