Building owner pledges fixes

October 13, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun reporter

Midway through a 90-minute meeting yesterday, Lottie Carroll, a tenant of a West Baltimore housing development, heard a list of concessions from the building's management that she never thought possible.

The community and laundry room at the Harvey Johnson Towers will remain open three extra hours until 11 p.m. Trash collection will be Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, a switch from Tuesday and Thursday. The security system is being upgraded to include all-night monitoring, and a new company could begin rodent abatement as early as next week.

These might not seem like extensive changes, but Carroll and many of the other 118 residents say they would not have won those battles had they not taken their fight public. "And I thank God for it," Carroll said. "Thank God we got the word out."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a 7th District Democrat, organized yesterday's forum, during which about 50 Harvey Johnson Towers residents met with elected and housing officials, community activists and representatives of West Side Management, the New Jersey-based company that runs the complex.

Cummings said he heard Oct. 5 about the tenants' complaints -- which include rodent infestation, belligerent behavior by management toward tenants, drug dealing and prostitution -- from a local radio show hosted by former state Sen. Larry Young.

Del. Melvin L. Stukes, a Democrat from the 44th District, also heard the show. On Wednesday, Stukes and officials with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met with the tenants, drafted an outline of issues for management to address and called for an Oct. 31 follow-up meeting. Stukes said he has met with the tenants a half-dozen times this week.

Cummings called yesterday's meeting to hear directly from the residents. Also attending were Stukes, federal Department of Housing and Urban Development representatives and Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, head of the NAACP's local chapter.

"We're using a holistic effort to help them empower themselves," Cummings said.

The public meeting did not deal with the most damaging allegations of drugs and prostitution, but Stukes said afterward that his preliminary investigation into those claims found them to be true. "There is no question drugs go through here," Stukes said. He did not mention prostitution.

Elise Schill, director of occupancy for the management company, attended yesterday's meeting and presented the changes the company plans to enact immediately. Schill said afterward that she was unaware tenants had complaints before this week.

Schill said the building, in the 1500 block of W. Mosher St., has 24 security cameras that feed into the Police Department. She said if drugs and prostitution take place in the building, that is a police matter. She said the company is doing everything it can to keep drugs out, including evicting two dozen residents since 2003 for drugs and for having unauthorized occupants.

"If a tenant is a drug dealer, that's the only thing we can act on legally," Schill said. "But the tenants let their family members and guests in the building. We don't know who they are."

Schill also dismissed claims that workers used profanity toward residents. "If a tenant has a grievance, it would be addressed to me," Schill said. "And nobody has ever come to me with a complaint."

Stukes said many of the residents told him that they are intimidated by management and worried about retaliation if they speak out.

"They were scared," Stukes said. "That happens, especially when you're living paycheck-to-paycheck. They become attached to these units."

Robin Jackson said he has lived in the complex for three years. He says he has seen drug dealing but has not reported it to anyone.

Jackson was recently elected as interim president of the Harvey Johnson Towers council, formed this week to represent the tenants and work with management. He says the small changes made by management could lead to bigger improvements, including ridding the place of illegal activity.

"It's a good building," Jackson said. "But there are a lot of things that need to be done."

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