Debating options for Obery Court

Housing complex in downtown Annapolis could be torn down


Alice Spencer sits outside her home of five decades on Obery Court and sees boarded-up apartments and dirt patches where lawns should be.

It didn't always look that way. The downtown Annapolis public housing complex, built in 1952 partly on the shores of College Creek, was long ago part of a bustling black neighborhood, with restaurants, shops and clubs, akin to Harlem in its heyday, she recalled.

"There were stores, and there was grass and flowers. It was just a beautiful place to walk through," said Spencer, 77. "I would love to see it be like that again before I leave this Earth."

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Sunday's Anne Arundel section misidentified Curtis Spencer as having grown up in the Obery Court housing complex. Spencer is a community activist who was visiting the complex.
The Sun regrets the errors.

She might. The question is where.

A panel formed by the Annapolis Housing Authority, which oversees the community, has called for razing and replacing the dilapidated complex - where some residents deal with moldy ceilings, poor ventilation and termites - and for renovating nearby College Creek Terrace. A preliminary report estimated that doing both would cost at least $7 million.

Committee members agree that all 163 units should remain open to low-income families, but many residents fear that demolition would displace them.

"If they tear it down, where are we going?" said Ellen Watts, a four-year resident of Obery Court. "What options do we have?"

Last month, the revitalization committee, made up of county and city officials and residents, outlined four options it is considering for the two properties.

The first calls for sticking with apartments for low-income families. The second would add lease-to-own housing after 15 years for qualified residents. The third option would combine those two, along with houses for low- and moderate-income buyers. The fourth would have all three and add market-rate homes.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer has taken that last idea one step further, proposing in a letter to Trudy McFall, chairwoman of the authority's board of commissioners, that the 3 waterfront acres of Obery Court "be converted to open space and park or sold to fund redevelopment."

Rental units and townhouses in the Clay Street neighborhood would be bought to house Obery Court residents. College Creek Terrace, built in 1946, would be renovated under her plan.

Robert H. Eades, a community activist and co-chairman of the revitalization committee, said Moyer is proposing a "land grab" that would lead to gentrification.

"What cost housing would they put along the water? Housing for people who could pay $50 to $400 a month?" Eades asked. "No developer would invest and not make a profit."

Eades prefers that Obery Court be rehabilitated, at an estimated cost of at least $3.4 million, unless there are guarantees that it would be rebuilt in its current location.

"If we allow them to demolish Obery Court, then we might not get anything back," he said. "Why should we have to move, why can't we enjoy what we have?"

McFall also supports rebuilding Obery Court on its current site.

"The Housing Authority owns a specific amount of land, and we need to provide solutions on the specific amount of land we own," she said.

The authority is seeking $75,000 from the state to study the density option. The focus would be on adding affordable housing and ownership opportunities, McFall said.

Many residents wonder who would be able to afford the houses.

On Obery Court, the monthly rent paid on 30 percent of the units is $50, according to the Housing Authority. Rent is determined by income.

Crystal Jordan-Perry, an 11-year resident, pays $224 for a four-bedroom apartment. She said Obery Court was a great place to raise her children but in recent years has become depressing. It is time for a change, she said. And she might qualify for a lease-to-own home.

"All of this here is waterfront, and they want that, but we want the units to be replaced," she said. "But I really would like a home because [if I have to move] I don't want to go back into public housing. I want my own house."

Moyer thinks blending affordable-housing opportunities with low-income housing would improve the Clay Street area. The city has spent about $2 million in grant money replacing building facades and improving safety in the historic community.

"The needs of the housing agency can be rolled into the needs of the neighborhood," Moyer said. "Right now, it's a failed neighborhood because it has too much of the same thing. ... It needs retail and diversity of homeownership and housing types."

Moyer dismissed the idea that low-income residents might be displaced as "poppycock."

"This is an opportunity to do more and to do better," she said.

Ultimately, the decision rests with the housing commission, which is appointed by Moyer. Its committee is expected to make its final recommendation as early as January. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would also be involved because it regulates public housing.

"We want to figure out what is going to make Obery Court a better piece of property for the community in the long term," said Eric Brown, executive director of the Housing Authority. "The only thing we are committed to doing is to make sure we are deliberative and inclusive and that we do the right things to earn people's trust."

One possible model is Bloomsbury Square, a formerly run-down public housing community on the banks of College Creek. To make room for a state government building expansion, it was moved and rebuilt at a cost of $8.4 million. The neat, brick 51-unit complex was completed in November 2004.

"If they make it like they did Bloomsbury," Watts said, "it'd be lovely, as long as they put back apartments we can afford to live in."

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