Time is running out for holdout tenants

Eviction: Residents of apartments slated for demolition near Johns Hopkins Hospital must find new homes in less than a month.

August 07, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

One rental house Delilah Skinner visited was too run-down, another didn't have the air conditioning she needs because of her heart problems and high blood pressure, a third was too small for a household that includes her daughter and two grandchildren.

The privately owned, low-income apartment complex in East Baltimore where Skinner has lived for 14 years is scheduled to be demolished and redeveloped into high-end townhouses and apartments - a positive change for an impoverished city that wants more housing to appeal to middle- and upper-class residents.

But it has been a traumatic turn of events for the 68-year-old woman, who faces an Aug. 31 deadline to find a new place to live.

"I don't know what to do or where to go," Skinner said earlier in the week, bursting into tears in her living room in the Chapel NDP Apartments, catty-corner to the Johns Hopkins medical complex. "My blood pressure keeps going up. I would never have thought I would have to go through this. This is the worst thing."

Two months ago, she found a recently renovated rowhouse that suited her needs. But as of late yesterday, she was still waiting to hear whether inspectors for the city's federally subsidized Section 8 rental program had approved the unit - and whether the city had agreed on a price with the landlord, whose $1,150-a-month listing is nearly $400 more than the city considered reasonable.

Skinner's household is one of about 30 remaining at Chapel. That's down from 173 two years ago, when redevelopment plans for the 6-acre parcel were first announced and from 90 in May, when lawyers for the residents dropped a lawsuit seeking to block the tenants' eviction in return for cash payments to the families.

Among them are older residents and those with health issues and large families, who are scattered among rows of boarded-up apartments.

Their problems illustrate the difficulties the neediest tenants are having finding decent affordable housing at a time of declining inventory.

Since the HOPE VI redevelopments, the number of public housing units in the city has dropped by nearly 4,000. A tight rental market and administrative problems have discouraged many landlords from participating in the Section 8 program. In many improving neighborhoods, owners who once accepted rent-subsidized tenants are refurbishing the units to be sold or rented at market rates.

And Chapel is the latest apartment complex to close down or stop accepting low-income tenants, a group that includes the Schoolhouse, Stafford and Uplands apartments.

"The market out there is rough," said Gregory L. Countess, a Legal Aid lawyer who has been representing Chapel residents. "The low-income housing resource is shrinking every month."

Moving Chapel residents is "not proceeding as quickly as we had hoped that it would," he said.

In addition to their anguish about their future, the remaining tenants have also lost money. Under the terms of the court settlement, each Chapel household received $1,000 in May to help with moving expenses. An additional $1,000 was paid to each household who moved by June 30; the amount dropped to $750 apiece for those who moved in July.

Residents who move this month will receive only an additional $250.

Both David Holmes - a principal in the partnership whose master plan to raze Chapel and turn it into an $80 million office, retail and residential complex was enthusiastically endorsed last week by the city's Design Advisory Panel - and city housing department ombudsman Reggie Scriber said they believed all tenants would have new housing by the end of the month.

"It's not easy," said Scriber, whose office has been transporting tenants to look at vacancies and in seven cases has successfully advocated for Section 8 payments higher than standard rates. "We're working on a time frame established by the court, not us."

Scriber blamed some of the difficulty in moving the tenants on the residents themselves.

"Some people, no matter what you show them, they want to go where they want to go," he said. "Most people want to stay in the neighborhood they're living in."

Sharnetta Jones fits in that category - for a reason.

A $9.05-an-hour housekeeper at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Jones, 26, said she needs to be near her job and her two school-age children's Catholic elementary school.

"I can walk eight to nine blocks; I don't have a problem with that," she said. "I can't go to West Baltimore."

Jones and her children have been living at Chapel with Jones' mother. Sheila Jones, 52, who uses a portable oxygen tank for emphysema and heart problems and describes herself as a former drug addict, said she wants to find her own place but has been turned down several times.

Part of her problem, Sheila Jones said, is $11,000 in debts that she amassed during her years of addiction - a debt she is now trying to deal with by declaring bankruptcy.

"I didn't struggle this hard to get the door slammed in my face," she said.

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