City razing homes, not building them

Fund was created to aid low-income residents

Sun Exclusive

September 27, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

An affordable housing fund that was created two years ago to provide homes for the poor and the working class in Baltimore is instead being used to demolish old public housing units before there are firm plans to replace them.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is using a "significant majority" of the $59 million fund to tear down 15 public housing sites across the city, said Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. He defended using the money to demolish more than 1,500 housing units, saying the sites are being prepared for redevelopment.

But critics say that the new housing is years away, if it materializes at all, and that the loss of housing units is inexcusable when 20,000 households are on a city waiting list for housing and specific redevelopment plans are lacking.

FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1 photo caption in yesterday's editions of The Sun inaccurately described the living situation of Bronita Neal, a former resident of the Somerset Courts public housing complex. City housing officials said she has been relocated.

For instance, the Housing Authority is using $4 million from the affordable housing fund to demolish the 257-unit Somerset Courts in East Baltimore. But there is no plan for what will eventually replace it. This week, the authority held its first planning meeting on the project, beginning a process that will take years.

"If we're doing demolition on properties where the city doesn't have a plan for it, it's almost like it's a waste of the money," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "For us to demolish a property for $2 million or $3 million, and it sits there for a couple of years while we're trying to figure out what to do, it defeats the purpose of why we created the trust fund in the first place."

The fund was created in 2005 as part of a deal struck by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and then-City Council President Sheila Dixon to win support for a city-owned hotel adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center. Several council members, including Harris and Helen L. Holton, voted for the hotel only after they were assured of the $59 million housing fund.

They say they expected the money to be used to help people buy homes, to renovate housing and to prepare sites for development of new housing. They didn't expect properties to be razed without plans to rebuild.

"We have a lot of things that need to be demolished, but that affordable housing trust fund was not designed just to clear sites for what might be possible," Holton said. "That fund was created to support and augment affordable housing through a planned process."

Legislation that created the fund says it should be used for essentially three purposes:

Acquisition and demolition of property.

"Planning, preservation, rehabilitation and development of economically diverse housing in city neighborhoods."

Rental payment and home purchase assistance for eligible households.

Graziano could not say how much of the $59 million is going toward demolition, but he acknowledged that it will be a majority of the fund. For instance, $7 million is going to demolition of the 900-unit O'Donnell Heights project in Southeast Baltimore; $8 million for demolition and some acquisition at Johnston Square; and $13.5 million for demolition and acquisition at the Uplands site in Southwest Baltimore.

Holton said she will consider calling a City Council hearing on how the fund is being spent.

"I would hate to see the fund consumed with just demolition and no plan for redevelopment," she said.

But the Housing Authority does not have plans for what will come after demolition at all 15 sites, Graziano said.

"There will be plans for all of them eventually," he said. The first task is to eliminate blighted, abandoned properties that are a drain on neighborhoods, he said. Planning will come after that.

"There's no reason to leave blighted and largely, if not totally, vacant housing sitting there," Graziano said. "So, if we can do demolition work in advance, we have eliminated blight and made a site ready for rapid redevelopment once we have adopted a plan and selected a developer."

At six of the sites, plans are in place that call for the construction of 3,700 new mixed-income housing units. Nearly half of the units would be affordable or low-income housing.

The Housing Authority is taking $4 million from the fund to tear down Somerset, a complex of three-story, red-brick buildings in East Baltimore that was built in 1944. Only about 20 families remain in the project's 257 units. Almost all of the windows have been filled with gray cinder- blocks, and the courtyards are barren and strewn with trash.

Iris Bradford, who has lived at Somerset Courts for 23 years and is president of the tenants council, says that if the project must come down, she wants assurances that it will be replaced with decent low-income housing. She is not sure that will happen, even after a meeting with Housing Authority officials.

"What was proposed to me was, 10 percent would be low-income," she said. "Ten percent? That's nothing. At least give me 25."

In the meantime, she's looking for a new place to live. She must be out by the end of October.

"I'm so depressed some days," she said. "I'm in limbo."

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