City seeks to raze repaired housing Millions of dollars in federal funds were spent on renovations

Homes 'people don't want'

November 06, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Over the past 30 years, the federal government handed Baltimore millions of dollars to renovate 1,000 homes for scattered public housing.

Now, the city is asking for permission to knock down most of those houses.

The proposal by the city's Department of Housing and Community Development is outrageous to advocates for the city poor, who point to a waiting list for public housing that is 22,000 families long.

Most absurd, these advocates say, is that at least 43 of the houses were renovated as part of the $5.5 million spent by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City on construction in the past six years. And that amount doesn't include the worth of the properties.

"They're actually admitting that they're going to tear down homes that they've just rehabilitated rather than trying to sell them or give them to a family?" asked Brendan Walsh, who operates the Viva House soup kitchen in West Baltimore. "It's throwing money right down the drain."

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III agrees but says the housing agency has little choice.

Many of the houses are so substandard and unmarketable that even the poor do not want to live in the properties, 890 of which are vacant, Henson said.

About 120 families would need to move if the houses were razed.

The housing agency plans to fix 280 of the city's 2,800 housing authority properties and is open to offers on the remaining houses, Henson said.

"Poor people have choices," Henson said. "Many of these are in areas where drug dealers hang on corners. Nobody wants to live there."

The Baltimore Rehab Residents Association, which represents 1,853 city residents in the authority's scattered public housing, recently registered a complaint about the plan with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD granted the millions to Baltimore for home renovations, although most of the scattered properties were rehabilitated more than 25 years ago, HUD officials said. But the federal agency will have a say on the future of the 1,000 targeted houses because the city is seeking more than $3 million more from the federal government to carry out the demolitions.

Demolishing each house will cost $3,000 to $17,000, a spokesman for the city housing agency said.

Before deciding whether to allow the houses to be destroyed, HUD will consider opponents' concerns, said Jim Kelly, a spokesman for the agency's Baltimore office.

"Part of the review process is looking at some of the concerns," Kelly said. "Is this something that makes sense?"

Shirley Wise says no.

Wise is president of the nonprofit rehab association. The group is upset with city housing officials, contending that despite several meetings with authority leaders throughout the year, the housing board voted to request the demolition before trying to determine whether neighborhood groups were interested in bringing the structures to livable standards, Wise said.

'Shoddy workmanship'

"We have people who need to be relocated," Wise said. "To take homes off line that were just renovated a few years ago is just covering up shoddy workmanship."

Henson and city housing officials came under fire in 1995 after a $1 million agency program to patch up crumbling housing authority homes swelled to at least $25.6 million in taxpayer funds.

Federal auditors found that nearly $1 million was squandered on ZTC phony or inflated invoices. Another $6.7 million in contracts were awarded without competitive bid to friends and relatives of city officials, including Henson and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Three contractors and an agency supervisor were convicted of corruption related to the no-bid program, and HUD demanded some of the money back on renovations for some of the properties that continued to be unlivable. The federal agency recently announced that Baltimore would be included in a nationwide probe of federal housing-grant spending.

An offer refused

Walsh of Viva House has spent the past few weeks visiting properties on the demolition hit list, most of which are in East and West Baltimore. Many, he said, appear from the outside to be livable. One tenant on West Franklin Street told Walsh he offered to buy his property from the housing authority, but the agency refused the offer.

Wise and Walsh see the demolitions as the next step in pushing the poor out of the city. They say the city hopes to receive a large chunk of the 50,000 "Section 8" housing vouchers to be issued nationwide by the federal government. The vouchers allow poor tenants to choose where they live.

By reducing the amount of public housing in Baltimore, Walsh predicts, the poor would be left no choice but to find shelter elsewhere.

"This isn't a plan that just happened," Walsh said.

Absurdity acknowledged

Henson refutes the accusation. Although he acknowledges that knocking down renovated houses may seem absurd, the action signals the change in the city's housing policy. Rather than continually renovate 100-year-old homes, Henson said, city officials believe it is smarter to knock down unusable vacant houses on properties that could be redeveloped some day.

The city plans to destroy 40,000 vacant homes in Baltimore over the next 10 years, Henson said. The effort would match the city housing stock to the city's population of 670,000 -- which is the result of 330,000 people leaving the city in the past 50 years.

"The housing authority has fixed these homes up again and again," Henson said. "But they're in dangerous neighborhoods and we need to get rid of these units that people don't want to live in."

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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