Apartment plan stirs Hamilton residents

Neighbors divided over proposal for affordable housing

April 11, 2007|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun reporter

Echoing a controversy that engulfed several neighborhoods seven years ago, a proposal to create low-income housing is again stirring passions in Northeast Baltimore.

In online message groups, petitions and interviews, many residents are objecting to a proposal to convert a closed Catholic school into affordable apartments.

They favor turning the shuttered St. Dominic School on Harford Road in Hamilton into a charter school, market-rate housing or senior apartments. They fear that retrofitting the building for 30 low-income rental units invites decay - not only of the property but of the largely middle-class area around it.

"I'm worried about crime in the neighborhood. I'm worried about maintenance of the property. I don't need that next door to me," says Joseph Washington, a retired federal worker and vice president of the Hamilton Hills Community Association, who says he has collected hundreds of signatures on petitions that call the proposal "unacceptable."

Advocates of the proposal - including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, developers Orchard Development and Homes for America, and parishioners of St. Dominic Church next door, many of whom live in the area - say they believe the building would be well-managed, enhancing the community and filling a social need.

"I'm convinced this is affordable housing done right," says Michael Bornemann, a longtime area resident, board member of the Waltherson Community Association and liaison to the church's parish council on the project. "This is very sensitive to the community's needs and interests. This is an opportunity for folks who are lacking means to live in a decent and well-managed apartment."

A community meeting on the future of the school property is scheduled for 7 p.m. today at Faith Community Church, across from St. Dominic.

The controversy over the site comes as city leaders are moving to expand affordable housing and foster mixed-income communities. A bill before the City Council would require developers who benefit from subsidies or zoning changes to make up to 20 percent of their units affordable.

To many, the controversy is indicative of the continuing negative image of affordable housing.

"Yes, there is still a stigma to providing housing for poor people," acknowledges Amy Wilkinson, the city housing department's associate executive director for fair housing and equal opportunity enforcement.

At a meeting last week, community leaders expressed support for conversion of two school buildings into 25 apartments for seniors and five apartments for nonelderly disabled residents - a ratio required by a recent federal consent order for senior buildings that receive public subsidies.

Ellicott City-based Orchard Development originally had proposed to convert the school into senior housing. But the company changed the concept to low- income housing because of the belief that the city would not support its request for federal funds and tax credits if the building were age-restricted, according to L. Scott Armiger, Orchard's vice president.

In fact, that had been the city's position in the recent past when developers were mainly interested in creating senior housing, but "we've backed off from that," says Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "We're trying to create a balance among senior housing, housing for nonelderly disabled and family housing."

Told of Graziano's comments, Armiger said: "We were always under the impression the city would not support a senior-only community. If we were wrong, that's a good thing. That means we can go back to the original proposal."

But Armiger says he needs someone from the city to affirm that position at tonight's meeting and says he has concerns about the requirement for a handful of units for the nonelderly disabled.

For their part, community leaders say they're looking for an explicit commitment that the developer does, in fact, want to pursue senior housing.

"If not," says Julie Lin, president of the Hamilton Hills Community Association, which has not yet taken a position on the project, "we'd have to figure out what we'd do next."

It was the change from the original concept of senior housing to low-income housing - which became clear at a community meeting in mid-January - that unleashed neighborhood passions, with many feeling that they were being victimized by "bait-and-switch" tactics, according to several who attended.

When the developers acknowledged that they would accept housing vouchers, one area resident yelled, "It'll be another Murphy Homes," a reference to a city public housing high-rise that became notorious for drugs and crime and was later demolished.

The timing of the meeting couldn't have been worse: The community was on edge after the killing the week before of a teen who went to the aid of a friend being robbed on Harford Road, two blocks from the church.

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