Cherry Hill tenant group president ousted in election organized by city

Her plan to redevelop housing projects on hold

February 10, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Tenant leader Loretta R. Johnson's $173 million dream to redevelop Cherry Hill public housing projects has come crashing down, at least for now.

On Friday, she and her fellow Cherry Hill Homes Tenant Council representatives were ousted in an election organized by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which has been trying to unseat her for more than a year. Hours later, four Housing Authority officers evicted her council from the basement offices it occupied in one of the public housing complexes.

Seventy-five of about 1,400 eligible tenants voted in the election, which designated Shirley Foulks the new Cherry Hill tenant president.

Nevertheless, Samuel B. Little, an associate deputy director at the Housing Authority, said that "there is an enormity of excitement" about the leadership change.

Johnson and the Housing Authority have been locked in litigation for nine years.

She is a plaintiff in a tenants' class action suit that accuses the Housing Authority and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development of practicing continuous segregation in Baltimore public housing developments since the 1930s.

The case was tried in December, and a judge's verdict is expected shortly.

Four years ago, she helped derail plans by Enterprise Homes Inc. to build 76 townhouses in Cherry Hill, citing a 1996 agreement with the city and HUD that gave the tenants and the American Civil Liberties Union veto powers over any public housing redevelopment.

Instead, Johnson submitted a rival plan, hoping to take advantage of a HUD rule that give tenant councils the right of first refusal whenever cities dispose of public housing buildings or land.

After contacting outside investors, she also proposed redeveloping three additional public housing sites, a multipurpose center and part of the Reedbird landfill in a package totaling $173 million.

She hired architects and engineers; among her consultants was Kwesi Holman, a one-time vice president of Baltimore Development Corp. and former executive vice president of the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

"My dreams will come true," Johnson said yesterday. She vowed to challenge the election, which came after a year of legal wrangling.

In one attempt at resolution, a mediator from the American Arbitration Association was brought in.

After he ordered new elections, Johnson set tomorrow as the date. The Housing Authority, however, decided to hold the election Friday.

The confusion over dates and the contentious debate surrounding the election led the League of Women Voters to withdraw from supervising the balloting, according to one league member.

Saturday, the Housing Authority told the 62-year-old Johnson to vacate her $279-a-month, five-bedroom apartment in Cherry Hill for nonpayment of $866 in rent.

But when Johnson appeared before Judge Halee F. Weinstein in Rent Court yesterday, the Housing Authority withdrew the eviction. Housing Authority spokesman Melvin Edwards later said Johnson had paid the overdue rent.

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