By Dennis Sean O’Brien
WASHINGTON – When Doris Roberts took over in February 1989 as the director of Somerset Manor, a public housing complex in Havre de Grace, things about the neighborhood looked bleak.
Drug dealers ran the streets. It wasn’t a safe place for children.
Today, it is the drug dealers and users who aren’t safe in Somerset Manor, Roberts said. The community has run them out.
The complex is one of 545 apartment complexes across Maryland participating in a state program that helps tenants and managers create and maintain a drug-free environment, principally by evicting those who deal drugs.
The program could serve as a model for other states.
President Clinton Tuesday night called on local housing authorities and tenant associations to adopt a “one-strike-and- you’re out” policy for residents who commit crimes and peddle drugs.
Maryland’s program very nearly does that.
The program, Families Insisting on Safe Tenancies, or “FIST,” was created by the state Department of Housing and Community Development in 1989, the year Roberts arrived at Somerset Manor.
Roberts said she heard about Maryland’s fledgling program while visiting a neighboring housing complex, where FIST officials were recruiting. She became the first person in the housing authority to sign up.
She screened prospective tenants for criminal backgrounds and required them to sign an addendum to their leases agreeing to eviction if caught dealing drugs.
She restricted automobile access to the complex, admitting only residents and friends.
Roberts said she hasn’t had to yet, but she could throw someone out the very next day if she or other tenants have documented them making drug transactions. Normally, she said, she gives drug dealers a full 30 days to find a new place to live.
Roberts said when she started the program she had to pay for her own signs to post around the complex, and gathered up neighbors to start a neighborhood watch. Eventually, a federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development came their way, enabling off-duty Havre de Grace police to be hired for evening patrols.
Stephanie White, who runs the FIST program in Maryland for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community, said, “It’s not necessarily `one strike,’ but it’s one tool among many.”
She said Colorado and Illinois have recently called to find out how to start their own programs.
The state budgeted $35,067 for the program for fiscal year 1996, White said. “It’s not very much,” she conceded.
The FIST program is primarily informational, White said. Her crew goes to housing units, talking to managers about the program and handing out lease addendums.
White said it takes a strong property manager and tenants’ association to make FIST work.
Roberts conceded the system isn’t invulnerable but is a pretty good deterrent. “We haven’t had drug problems here in about a year and a half,” she said. “And it’s been nice.” -30-