City housing has tough set of problems

Commissioner hears complaints of decay, vacancies and trash

Many landlords absent

Priority is building reform ideas around entire neighborhoods

February 28, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Paula Branch shakes her head at the notion of The Avenue at White Marsh.

It's an artificial city Main Street, with throwback restaurants and shops, thriving a short drive north of the real city of Baltimore. Yet the Waverly community activist understands its popularity.

"It's clean, it's lit and it's safe," Branch said.

With that observation, Branch voiced the hurdle facing new city Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne and her boss, Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Too many Baltimore streets are decomposing from abandonment and neglect. Last week, Branch and dozens of other city residents attended housing forums to tell Payne what they see as the chief problems.

Vacant and abandoned houses -- estimated at 40,000 -- topped the list of resident gripes along with their desire for the city to continue stepping up prosecution of out-of-town landlords who own whole sections of Baltimore property that languish in disrepair.

Throw in the list of 20,000 poor Baltimore families -- cut in half over the past three decades -- waiting for decent public housing and all agree that Payne, former state housing secretary, faces one big tangled housing mess.

"I don't know whether to say congratulations or extend my sympathies," Baltimore American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Barbara Samuels said in greeting Payne.

"You certainly have stepped into one of the hardest jobs in the city."

A 30-year housing veteran who started her career as a city community development coordinator on Pennsylvania Avenue, Payne didn't blanch at the woeful neighborhood conditions related by residents.

Homes are vacant. Drug dealers and addicts are using them as cover to do business. Many are being set afire by vagrants or being turned into landfills of trash two stories high.

"In my section of East Baltimore," resident Donna Money said. "It is really horrifying how much is there."

Payne wasn't surprised.

"There was nothing that was unexpected or overwhelming," she said. "I certainly heard very frequently the words `vacant' and `boarded up houses.' Everybody knows that we are working with some really tough issues."

Her housing priorities are straightforward -- that city development, demolition and code enforcement should be conducted in a fashion that targets whole neighborhoods instead of blocks at a time.

Jeff Sattler, president of the Lauraville community in Northeast Baltimore and director of the Waverly Community Housing Program, gave her an example of how difficult that will be.

He recently counted 55 vacant or abandoned homes in his neighborhood, excluding those with sale signs on them.

Six are in the hands of the city. The remainder are owned by corporations that Sattler has been trying to track down to hold them accountable.

"They are bought by corporation after corporation," Sattler told Payne. "Blocks of five, 10 and 20 houses are bought by a company in Texas and used as a tax write-off."

Mitchell Klein, an organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nonprofit agency that helps poor residents get mortgages, agrees.

"Anybody who sees it as a vacant housing problem isn't seeing the problem," Klein said. "We essentially have a group of landlords holding the city hostage."

That's just the abandoned homes.

Thousands of poor city residents have locked themselves into high interest mortgages with predatory lenders, financially enslaving them to the point where they have no money to do necessary improvements.

"We can see the smoke from these deals a mile away," said Sattler of Waverly. "They are the highest interest percentage, points, low money down and a [false]appraisal."

Residents of hard-hit neighborhoods are hard-pressed to obtain loans at favorable rates from major local banks, housing advocates say.

O'Malley intends to turn to the federal Community Reinvestment Act to begin addressing the problem.

The law -- which requires banks to make a certain percentage of loans in poor neighborhoods based on the wealth of their deposits -- has helped cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Boston force major banks to pour private money into neighborhood investment.

Bank of America has become a national leader, and is now working with ACORN in Baltimore to extend more than 600 mortgages to families who previously could not get loans.

"Lending is bad everywhere," Klein said. "Few cities are doing it right."

With the city facing a $153 million gap in its budget over the next four years, Payne sees private investment and partnerships with community groups as the chief solution for Baltimore.

Groups such as ACORN and Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, which has worked with the city to build homes in Sandtown-Winchester, concur.

"I don't believe it's a shortage of resources," said Payne, who led similar housing development programs in the Lutheran church. "It's a matter of leveraging and targeting the resources."

Many agree that the scattered demolition that occurred under former city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III should end. But demolition as part of a plan to repair whole neighborhoods makes sense, Klein said. ACORN is endorsing a plan where the city banks vacant land left after demolition for new housing development for the poor.

"Why should people live in those housing conditions?" said Klein, who advocates moving whole neighborhoods to allow demolition. "Just because you grow up there?"

The outpouring of passion over housing issues displayed to Payne by residents -- some of whom took a bus across town or hobbled into area auditoriums gripping canes -- shows that many city dwellers want Baltimore to return to its Main Street glory.

"What you are hearing is people say, `I have ideas, I want to help, I care about this city,' " Samuels told Payne. "If you succeed, we all succeed."

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