Urban revitalization -- but at what cost?

Uncertainty: Tenants of subsidized housing have played a vital role in Ridgely's Delight's resurgence. Now they fear they might be forced out.

March 11, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Two decades ago, Vanessa Ball became one of the first residents of a subsidized apartment project in an area of Southwest Baltimore in the midst of extensive revitalization.

Today, the rundown rowhouses that pockmarked Ridgely's Delight have been transformed into spiffy showpieces; the neighborhood is a mix of downtown workers, older residents and student renters from the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus -- and the plot of land abutting the eastern edge of the community is Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But Ball and other low-income tenants of the Ridgely's Delight Apartments worry that the area's resurgence could result in their displacement.

The property owner, an affiliate of prominent developer Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, has given notice that it does not intend to renew its federal contracts to provide affordable housing when the 20-year pacts covering the project expire next month. The company wants to remodel the 46-unit project, with an eye to offering the apartments at higher market-rate rentals or possibly as condominiums.

"I don't think it's fair," said Ball, 38, a $7.50-an-hour garment worker who lives with her two children, ages 17 and 10. "Now that the neighborhood's gotten better, they want us out."

To advocates of affordable housing, the situation involving Ball's development -- where the units are scattered among several nearby buildings -- highlights what they say is a growing problem in Maryland and nationwide.

As long-term contracts expire, hundreds of property owners, many in improving neighborhoods, are choosing to opt out of agreements to provide project-based Section 8 housing, where a set number of units or entire buildings are designated as subsidized units, and replacing them with market-rate rentals. Hundreds more are taking advantage of recent legislation to prepay their federal mortgages and stop offering low-income units.

`It's a real dilemma'

Nearly 200,000 affordable housing units have been lost, about 5,000 of them in Maryland, according to the National Housing Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group that preserves and lobbies for low-income rental housing. Although some tenants are able to stay in their apartments using specially issued vouchers worth more money, when those tenants do move out, the units typically are converted to market-rate rentals, said Michael Bodaken, president of the organization.

"We're losing affordable housing stock, and we're not replacing it," he said. "It's a real dilemma."

Legal Aid officials, who advise tenants whose buildings are being converted, said developments opting out of the project-based Section 8 program are scattered throughout the state, though most are located in the Washington suburbs. In Baltimore, in addition to Ridgely's Delight, two buildings just north of downtown and one in Sharp-Leadenhall in southern Baltimore have either left the program or are considering doing so, they said, adding that they fear more may follow suit.

Bodaken and other housing advocates say the issue is not just the number of units being lost, but where they are located.

"The irony is that the developments that most meet the contemporary goals of having affordable housing in mixed-income neighborhoods are the ones we are most likely to lose," said Barbara A. Samuels, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, which negotiated a court decree with the city to give public housing residents an opportunity to move out of impoverished areas. "We're not only losing units, we're losing the best units."

Under federal law, tenants such as Ball in buildings where project-based contracts have expired can stay with vouchers to cover higher rents -- provided that their apartments remain for rent and that the federal government considers the new rents to be reasonable.

To the tenants at Ridgely's Delight, one problem is that the owners have not made clear what they plan to do with their property.

A Struever Bros. executive said that the company wants to do extensive renovations of the properties and then "see what happens" with the market.

Michael V. Seipp, Struever's director of development for rental housing, said the company might maintain a mix of market-rate and subsidized units, but reiterated that the firm no longer wanted to make a long-term commitment to maintaining the entire project as affordable housing. "It limits your options as an owner," he said.

While expressing "empathy" for the tenants, Seipp said the company's decision was an encouraging sign for the city and the neighborhood. "It means that there are good things happening in the real estate market," he said.

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