Displacing low-income tenants

URBAN CHRONICLE

Change: The new owner wants to rehab Chapel NDP Apartments, converting it to market-rate housing.

April 17, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

ADD CHAPEL NDP Apartments in East Baltimore to the roster of subsidized rental complexes falling victim to an unexpected threat: improving city neighborhoods.

Chapel's new owners plan to convert it entirely to market-rate housing with much higher rents -- effectively forcing out the low-income tenants.

Like Ridgely's Delight Apartments in southwest and Uplands Apartments on the west side, Chapel serves as yet another reminder of the double-edged sword of urban redevelopment: It brings needed new investment to an impoverished city, but often leaves many poor people with no place to go.

While limits on property tax increases offer a modicum of protection from gentrification for low-income homeowners, renters are more vulnerable.

Built a quarter-century ago, Chapel is a privately owned complex of 173 low-rise units. Most are subsidized through the Section 8 rental program; 20 are leased at modest market-rate prices.

In December, a newly formed Baltimore corporation, Capital Development LLC, bought the property just southeast of the Johns Hopkins medical complex and bordering Washington Hill and Butchers Hill.

The purchase price was $4.5 million -- $1 million over the assessed value. The premium reflects not only the growing popularity of nearby neighborhoods, but also the Broadway Overlook mixed-income development under construction a couple of blocks to the west and the plans for a biotech park a few blocks to the north.

The new owner wants to rehab the apartments in the complex, which features interior courtyards and off-street parking as well as generally well-maintained, if somewhat weathered, buildings. The rehabbed complex will target students, doctors and young professionals who want to live near Hopkins and close to downtown and the waterfront, said operations manager Noelle Bowman.

"A lot of people are looking for housing in this area," she said.

The Chapel case illustrates exactly what the city needs to revitalize itself: private and public dollars encouraging more private investment, which will spur still more investment, increasing the tax base and bringing in new residents.

And the alternative to making improvements to a 25-year-old complex is the kind of inevitable and irreversible deterioration that occurred at Uplands, which is beyond physical redemption and must be razed.

But the Chapel situation also illustrates how such investment can aggravate one of the city's thorniest problems: how to provide affordable housing in decent neighborhoods for legions of low-income residents.

Late last month, residents of Chapel, where monthly rents range from $421 to $700, were notified that the new owner does not intend to continue accepting Section 8 certificates. Some residents must leave by the end of December; others have a year to move out. One notice estimated that some rents would triple, and could reach $2,125 in five years.

"We're trying to urge people to start looking as quickly as possible," said Bowman. "It is hard to find alternative housing."

Housing advocates and city officials are more blunt in their assessment of the prospects that Chapel's residents face.

"Where will these people go?" asks Karen Forbes, who works for the Legal Aid Bureau helping to ensure that the rights of tenants are respected when their landlords leave the Section 8 program. "These residents don't want to move."

Michael Kramer, who heads the Section 8 program of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said the agency makes special efforts to assist tenants who are forced to move. But he acknowledges, "Every quality [Section 8] unit is leased up. That's the real issue."

City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, who represents the east side and helped pass legislation to pave the way for the biotech park, attended a recent tenants' meeting and came away upset. "I did not support the redevelopment of East Baltimore for the displacement of my people over there," she said. "They're pricing people out of the market."

That's true of Geraldine Pinkney, 66, who has lived in Chapel since it opened and lives in an unsubsidized $589-a-month apartment that doubles as a day care facility. Aside from her personal connection to a place where she raised five children, Pinkney says she needs to stay in the area because that's where her clients are, but the projected new rents are way out of her reach.

And it's true of Dondrea Ross, 40, who heads Chapel's community association and who lives in a subsidized apartment with her son, a sixth-grader at nearby Lombard Middle School.

In the seven years she has lived in the complex, Ross has become involved in community issues. Now, she is losing her community.

"It's unfair we're being treated this way," she said. "We're very good neighbors. We've always cared about our property. Our kids are not rude. I don't understand why we're being put out and not being given the opportunity to come back, just because we're low-income."

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