Organizing Neighborhoods

December 20, 1992|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

Two years ago, dealers sold drugs openly on the street corners in Rikki Spears' Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.

Just one block from her home, a little girl was hit and killed by a speeding car in a drug chase, Ms. Spears said. And there were other serious problems -- from lead paint to potholes to "drug houses."

Then Ms. Spears, who was then unemployed, decided it was time to organize.

She founded the St. Charles Avenue Neighborhood Association and started going door-to-door trying to get her neighbors to work together for better living conditions. They had community cleanups, started a block-watch program and even won some grant money to pay for exterior home repairs.

Today, Ms. Spears still goes into the community, trying to get people to organize and work together for change. But now she's a professional community organizer and the doors she knocks on are not just in her own neighborhood.

She travels all over the state, helping low-income Maryland renters establish lasting, effective tenant groups so they can have a voice in the way that they live.

"I show them how to get what they want," said Ms. Spears, who works for the Maryland Low Income Housing Information Service. The nonprofit organization in South Baltimore provides housing-related informational, educational and organizational services to the poor.

Realizing a sense of power

Initially, Ms. Spears' goal is to help tenants learn how to deal with their immediate concerns: security, crime, unresponsive management, rodent infestation.

"I have to organize the people where they're at," she said. "I try to get them a voice in the community so they can see themselves as part of the decision-making process. People have to realize a sense of power. They have to realize that they are powerful as a unit."

For the past few months, Ms. Spears has been working with members of the Uplands Apartments Tenants Association to strengthen their organization. It was formed earlier this year to address concerns about maintenance and crime, as well as the need for laundry and recreational facilities at the Edmondson Village apartment complex.

With her assistance, association officers have received free legal services and have made contact with government officials and organizations that can help them. They are now working with management to resolve their concerns.

Ms. Spears has also worked with the Madison Park North Tenants Association, teaching its members how to conduct effective community meetings using an agenda and a time limit. They've also learned to negotiate and now they have regular, productive meetings with a management company they say is (( "really supportive."

"Rikki has given us a lot of guidance about how to deal with management in a very positive way," said Brenda Stokes, vice president of the association and a longtime resident of the Madison Park North Apartments in Reservoir Hill.

"Negotiation with management had always been the weakness of our organization," she added. "Before, we would get into a meeting with management and just go back and forth arguing. We'd end up in a huff and nothing would be resolved. We didn't strategize or plan it out. Now, before I go to a meeting I'm looking for the leverage points that we have and thinking about what it is we want in the end. . . . You have to be able to negotiate and come to that middle ground."

Preserving affordable housing

Over the long term, Ms. Spears hopes that the strength of these well-organized tenant groups will help to preserve 16,741 units of affordable housing located in 103 properties that may be at risk of conversion for more profitable uses.

"I don't want to lose one single unit of affordable housing in the state of Maryland," Ms. Spears said.

About 30 other nonprofit organizations across the country have hired professional organizers to help preserve a total of more than 360,000 housing units nationwide. What makes these organizers unique is their total focus on issues associated with a specific type of housing.

Ms. Spears' work is directed at Maryland residents who live in privately owned, low-income housing -- like the Uplands Apartments and the Madison Park North Apartments -- that was indirectly subsidized by the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I monitor all of these properties," Ms. Spears said. "When any action is taking place at that property by the owner, I find out what it is and try to counter that action if it's bad for low-income tenants. I always bring the tenants in as part of what I'm doing. And once a tenant group is formed I continue to monitor the property."

This type of housing was developed under several programs designed to encourage public/private partnerships as an alternative to public housing.

Financial incentives were given to private owners who agreed to provide low-rent housing for at least 20 years. After that time, the owner had the option of paying off -- that is, prepaying -- his 40-year mortgage and doing whatever he wanted with his property.

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