Despite an order to halt from the federal government, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is forging ahead with his plan to demolish a portion of Baltimore's largest public housing neighborhood and erect in its place townhouses for low- and moderate-income homebuyers.
Henson has evicted some residents of Cherry Hill, begun stripping the 1940s-era buildings and erected an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence to keep vandals and looters out of the work area.
Henson said Friday that even though he doesn't have written approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to begin the demolition of 31 buildings, he has been given verbal approval.
In contrast, HUD officials say no verbal approval has been given. And in a memorandum Thursday to Henson, the federal agency told the city to stop all demolition plans until approval is given. HUD officials said that going ahead with the demolition without the agency's approval would mean that the cash-strapped city would have to pay the multimillion-dollar bill.
But the demolition of 192 of Cherry Hill's nearly 1,800 units isnot only about two housing agencies in dispute, it also is about a small number of Cherry Hill residents vowing to fight the demolition plan.
They fear that when the dust settles, they will be forced out of the neighborhood many have lived in all their lives.
The blighted and drug-stricken south Baltimore neighborhood, long isolated geographically from the rest of the city, has one feature that could make it attractive to private, profit-minded developers: Much of it is waterfront property, some with views of downtown and the Inner Harbor.
"We are sitting on a gold mine," said Edith Mackall, a 32-year Cherry Hill resident who is leading the fight against Henson's demolition plan. "We should hold onto it as long as we can. I'm telling the folks not to get comfortable because I can see the handwriting on the wall."
Suspicious of Henson's demolition plan, Mackall thinks that the city's use of private developers to build the proposed townhouses is the first step in altering the character of a neighborhood that began as solidly black working class, but now 80 percent of its residents receive public assistance.
Nonetheless, Henson, a brash and decisive department head and developer, has a vision for Cherry Hill that he wants to realize, despite the objections of a few vocal tenants. He wants to reduce the density of the community of 10,000 residents.
He wants moderate-income families and perhaps middle-income families to mix with the low-income, subsidized housing tenants.
He has renovated nearly 1,200 public housing units in Cherry Hill and says that even after the demolition, 1,700 subsidized-rent units will remain.
He said he is disturbed that only 17 percent of Cherry Hill residents own their homes, compared with 48 percent citywide, according 1990 U.S. census figures.
"We are going to move forward in Cherry Hill," said Henson, who said he is confident that he has not broken any rules because he hasn't demolished any buildings yet. "I'm preparing to demolish the buildings."
He said about six buildings are scheduled for demolition beginning about Thanksgiving.
He told members of the Tenant Council of Cherry Hill Homes last week that the demolition would occur in four phases, with the first being the pre-demolition work. He told them he plans to build 80 to 100 units with three or four bedrooms when the demolition is completed by the end of March.
"Unfortunately, the demolition approval by HUD has been delayed for several months, and even though we have received verbal assurances that HUD has approved our plan, we do not physically have their letter yet," Henson said.
But HUD officials said Henson is technically flouting the agency's rules even if the structures haven't come down.
James F. Kelly, public information officer for HUD's office in Maryland, said removing asbestos and other preparations for demolition are not allowed.
"If they are doing this to demolish it, they are violating HUD rules," Kelly said. "We haven't approved the demolition plan in Cherry Hill yet."
But Kelly said HUD is aware of the city's plan and agrees with "90 percent of what he [Henson] wants to do." He cautioned that the agency is looking at whether it wants to relax its rules enough to allow public housing to be replaced with unsubsidized houses for sale.
Though the city did that at Lexington Terrace and Lafayette Courts, which recently was renamed Pleasant View, a different pot of government money permitted the experiment, Kelly said.
William Tamburrino, director of HUD's office of public housing, sent Henson the order saying the city was in violation of federal regulations.
"The Housing Authority is hereby notified to stop action on any demolition until such time as HUD offers a final determination of your demolition application," he wrote Thursday.
Some of the residents also want HUD to require Henson to renovate the 192 units that he wants to demolish.