Vision for dwellings becomes another city housing nightmare

Rundown properties face threat of closure

November 24, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

It seemed like the perfect project.

Launched in the heady days of the city's renaissance and financed with $4.1 million in public money, six vacant school buildings were converted by a private partnership into subsidized rental units - recycling historic properties, bolstering marginal neighborhoods and providing decent housing for poor people.

Twenty-one years after the first tenants moved into the Baltimore Schoolhouse Apartments, however, this once-heralded venture in preservation, community development and affordable housing has become not a model for renovation but yet another addition to the city's roster of problem properties.

Scattered in struggling neighborhoods on the east and west side not far from downtown, the buildings have widespread deficiencies, from rodent and roach infestation to holes in the walls and ceilings to exposed electrical panels, according to a recent federal inspection report. About a quarter of the 132 units in the six buildings are vacant.

Faced with an edict from U.S. housing officials that repairs be made within 30 days, the buildings' managers notified tenants Nov. 12 to find alternative housing because the apartments were being closed by year's end. Four days later, after complaints that the notice was inadequate, Crowninshield Management Corp. extended the deadline to Feb. 28.

Tenants - mostly disabled people or young, single mothers - are angry and upset at the notices. Though unhappy with living conditions, they are worried about where they will go.

Brunilda Hancock, 24, who has lived in a converted schoolhouse at 249 Aisquith St. for two years with her 3-year-old daughter, has had windows fall out of her living room and bedroom, and she goes to sleep at night "with pennies to throw at the mice."

But if the building closes and she can't find a new apartment, she said, "We're going into a [homeless] shelter."

City housing officials contend that the evictions are unwarranted and promise court action to protect residents and taxpayers, and keep at least some of the buildings operating with adequate management. On Monday, they stopped Section 8 housing payments to three of the buildings, the second time this year they have taken such action.

Though acknowledging that the city has been lax in ensuring that the buildings were kept up, housing officials blame the managers and developers - a partnership of Baltimorean Mendel Friedman and Massachusetts-based Crowninshield - for the predicament.

"We wouldn't be in this position if there had been good property management over the years," said city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, adding that the partnership is $300,000 behind in its payments to the city.

Representatives of the property managers say the city has been unresponsive to requests for better security around the most troubled building, at 2000 E. North Ave. Also, they say they need an increase in payments to cover the costs of damage caused by tenants and vandals at all the buildings, and to pay for repairs demanded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We've poured tons of money into those buildings," said Nancy Sterling, a Crowninshield spokeswoman. "There's only so much that management's willing to do."

Unfulfilled promise

The Aisquith Street building illustrates the promise and problems of the Baltimore Schoolhouse Apartments. Across from Pleasant View Gardens, the city's first redevelopment of public housing high-rises, and not far from Johns Hopkins Hospital, the building was completed in 1870 and opened as a high school for girls.

Lauded as an example of Civil War-era architecture, its red brick exterior is offset by white wooden pillars and trim. It has 21 units on three floors. But the building also has a broken fire alarm in a trash-strewn hallway, exterior doors that don't lock and an intercom system for identifying visitors that is defective. Inside the apartment where Latarsha Buckner, 25, has lived for the past year with her four young children, mice roam, and a loose kitchen window rattles when the wind blows. Still, she says, she's not eager to be tossed out.

"I'm just getting used to my apartment," said Buckner. "[Moving's] too much stress to be going on, not just on me, on my kids."

Shuttering the buildings and displacing the residents after 21 years was not envisioned in the March 1979 lease and development agreements between the city and Baltimore School Associates, the partnership of Friedman and Crowninshield. The agreements called for the developer to convert six vacant school buildings - at 249 Aisquith St., 511 S. Bond St., 825 N. Broadway, 1024 N. Carrollton Ave., 2000 E. North Ave. and 1125 N. Patterson Park Ave. - with a $4.1 million city loan and to maintain the properties as rental apartments through 2030. The loan has a balance of $2.2 million.

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