A voice for the poor of public housing

Activist: When AIDS drove Harry Karas into the Broadway Homes, the former businessman embraced his neighbors and became their advocate.

August 15, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Harry Karas is not feeling well. The AIDS virus he has been battling for a decade has the upper hand today. This morning he passed out in his office and had to be hooked up to one of the oxygen tanks he keeps nearby.

He hates the tanks, worries they might become a crutch. But today there was no alternative. He'd promised to help a fellow tenant council president across town.

So, limping and leaning on a cane, an oxygen tank trailing behind him, his swollen feet wrapped in socks, he slowly shuffled to a van waiting outside his office in the 2100 block of E. Fairmount Ave. He winced with each step, but he pressed on.

Ten years ago, he was living the high life of a gay man-about-town, complete with handsome lovers. He had a grand, $145,000 townhouse in Reservoir Hill and owned the Two Crazy Greeks pizza shops. Life was good. Then the virus came. He thought it was a death sentence. And it was, the death of one life making way for another.

Today, his years of hard work will pay off with the groundbreaking of the $54.4 million townhouse complex that will replace the old Broadway Homes project. On a gently sloping hill, the site has a spectacular view of Baltimore's skyline.

It took years to reach this point. Karas arrived at the old 22-story Broadway Homes public high-rise a broken man. He was sick, penniless, homeless. Slowly, he pulled himself up. Now he is regarded as one of the shrewdest, craftiest tenant council presidents ever to sit down at the bargaining table.

The turning point came the day he helped a blind tenant into her ninth-floor apartment. The woman asked if he could bring her the fried chicken dinner she had bought from Popeyes. He saw it on the kitchen counter, roaches scrambling over the food.

"I went home and cried. I was devastated," said Karas. "From that point it became a mission for me to help these people."

He ran for tenant council president and won in a landslide. Since then the women of Broadway Homes have depended on this Greek immigrant to speak for them, to argue for them, to lead them. And he has never failed them.

"I'm not a martyr or anything like that. What I am is hard-headed, and I won't take `no' for an answer," he said one afternoon, while discussing his negotiating style and his relationship to the people he serves. "This Broadway is like a family, and I'm like the sick child that nobody wants to die."

On some days he feels like Job, beset by bleeding boils from a Bartonella infection and hobbled by a wound in his right heel that defies all medications. The infection, caused by animal scratches, is one more assault on his heavily compromised immune system. Yet, none of this has stopped him.

Negotiations over the development would have gone much smoother, and the public housing tenants likely would have gotten much less, if it weren't for Karas.

He kept reminding everyone that HOPE VI, the federally funded program that has leveled the city's high-rise public housing, was not conceived to benefit big-time developers, homebuyers looking for a good deal, or Johns Hopkins Hospital.

HOPE VI was for people like Sarah Stewart, 67, who has raised grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the projects.

Winning's a `kick'

"You don't know what adrenaline I get when I help somebody or get (Housing Commissioner Paul T.) Graziano to do something," Karas said, smiling a toothless smile. "I get a kick out of that. I'm sorry, I love to see a big developer buckle under."

There were heated discussions over the necessary land swap with Hopkins, the consent decree involving replacement housing, and the promises to improve the lives of the public housing tenants.

In the end, five homes at the new 166-unit development were set aside for purchase by Broadway residents. It was either that or Karas was walking away from the table, and he knew no one wanted that.

"He understands the power dynamic in a negotiation. He understands what he's up against as negotiator for poor people who have nothing, and he also understands what their leverages are and how to use them. He's not afraid of anybody," said Barbara Samuels, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who has worked alongside Karas. She calls him "one of the sharpest people I have met."

"Some people think he's kind of crazy," said Samuels, "but crazy like a fox."

Ownership of the new community center will revert to the tenant council after 15 years. Johns Hopkins Hospital will contribute $500,000 into a fund for former Broadway residents. HUD has approved $500,000 for a youth program run by Hope Village Inc., the nonprofit entity formed by residents of the old Broadway Homes.

These hard-won concessions, unique in the city's Hope VI program, are part of Karas' legacy.

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