HUD told to review its sale of complex

Judge orders agency to look at effect of deal on Uplands

City plans major housing development

Ruling made on motions in suit filed by former tenants

September 23, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reconsider the fair-housing implications of its sale of the Uplands Apartments to the city -- a decision that could result in changes in a planned major housing development hailed as one of the most significant in Baltimore in decades.

In a ruling on several motions in a case brought by former tenants of the vacant, sprawling rental complex in Southwest Baltimore, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said it was unclear whether HUD had considered the impact of the city's redevelopment plans on the Uplands area off Edmondson Avenue near the Baltimore County line and on other neighborhoods -- and on the agency's obligation to maintain housing for low-income people.

The judge also questioned how HUD, in its contract of sale with the city, determined what would be considered affordable housing to be built on the cleared site. The agency said housing that could be bought or rented by families earning 80 percent of regional median household income of about $67,000 a year would be considered affordable. Former Uplands Apartments tenants said that figure would be too high to allow them to return.

Blake, who denied last year an effort by tenants to prevent the sale, said her order for "fuller consideration" by HUD could allow her to set aside the sale but said she would not do so now.

"Such a measure would be imprudent considering that HUD may yet succeed in justifying its action, and nullification of the sale agreements in the meantime could cause substantial hardship to the city," she wrote in a memorandum and order released yesterday.

She referred the case to a federal magistrate and asked for a status report in a month.

Lawyers for the Legal Aid Bureau, who filed the case against HUD and the city last year, hailed the order as a "huge victory" for the complex's former tenants. Attorneys for the former tenants said they wanted to work with Baltimore and HUD officials to come up with a plan that would allow the city to meet its needs for an increased tax base while guaranteeing housing for families making substantially less than the regional median of about $67,000 a year.

"We want our clients, who are at or below 50 percent of the area median, to be able to return and live at a rebuilt Uplands," said Hannah Lieberman, director of advocacy for Legal Aid.

A top Baltimore housing official said the creation of mixed-income developments is the best public policy for the city, and expressed confidence that HUD would be able to convince Blake that its actions were consistent with federal law. He said the city would not alter its timetable for the site's redevelopment based on the judge's order.

"It's not going to slow down our planning or development at this point," said Deputy Housing Commissioner Douglass Austin. "Hopefully, this will be resolved before we have to start building."

But Austin cautioned that if a resolution was not reached quickly, it could hinder the ambitious redevelopment plans.

"If we've got this lawsuit hanging over our head, it's going to narrow the competition for developers," he said.

HUD officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Three weeks ago, city officials announced that they would assemble land for the city's largest new residential development in decades by relocating New Psalmist Baptist Church and combining the church's property with that of the cleared apartments to create a 100-acre site that would eventually contain 1,100 apartments, condominiums and single-family homes at prices of up to $400,000.

Since then, the city Planning Commission has approved the master plan for the Uplands Apartments site, and legislation has been introduced in the City Council to create a renewal plan that includes the apartments site and some commercial properties on adjacent land.

Plans call for 546 housing units on the apartments site, of which 404 would be affordable under HUD's formula, with another 150 to be built on the site of the commercial properties.

In her memorandum, Blake emphasized that HUD would retain wide discretion in how it would meet federal housing objectives and said the agency could come back with the same sales contract terms if it could demonstrate it had considered the appropriate factors. But she said the discretion "must be exercised within the framework of the national policy against discrimination in federally assisted housing, and in favor of fair housing."

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