Blighted Pall Mall housing gone but so many need a place to live

November 23, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,jean.marbella@baltsun.com

It ended not with a bang or even a whimper, but something more like a sigh of resignation.

There was the rumble of the dusty yellow Caterpillar machine, clawing down the vacant apartment complex, and cheers from the gathered city officials and nearby residents. But mostly, when the Pall Mall Apartments bit the dust Thursday, what it sounded like was simple failure.

Not that anyone was mourning the demolition of the complex on Pimlico Road just south of Cold Spring Lane, which had 31 units and received federal Section 8 vouchers to house the poor. For years, it had been a fetid, frightening place to call home, owned by a notoriously bad absentee landlord, allowed to deteriorate into disrepair and taken over by drug dealers.

And yet, while the demolition will wipe this particular blight from the neighborhood, a larger problem remains unscathed - the persistent lack of enough low-income housing in Baltimore.

It is one of the city's white-noise problems, there so long as to have faded into background. While housing advocates have long decried the worsening situation - public and subsidized housing complexes increasingly are being bulldozed, but without an equal number of units built to replace them - it is only rarely that the rest of us are jolted into realizing the extent of it.

Last year, for example, when eight members of an extended family living in a tiny East Baltimore rowhouse were killed in a fire, the tragedy was mixed with shock that so many were crammed into such a miserable little home. But in a city where the waiting list for public or subsidized housing has hit as high as 31,000, and where one study estimated that there are two renters for every affordable housing unit, surely that was not the only family living in such dire straits.

Where do they go while awaiting shelter? Somehow, most of them get absorbed - maybe families or friends take them in, they double and triple up - thus rendering them invisible to the rest of us because "they don't immediately end up on the street," says Barbara Samuels, an ACLU attorney and housing advocate.

Samuels has long criticized the city for razing public and subsidized housing without replacing them with an equal amount of new units, a charge also leveled in a blistering report that the Abell Foundation issued last year charging the city with abandoning its responsibility to house the poor.

"You have a massive loss of housing affordable to the lowest-income people," Samuels said.

Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano said that all the former Pall Mall residents were relocated and that the complex had been vacant for about two years. The city has no immediate plans for the site, he said, but wants to incorporate it into the overall redevelopment of the Park Heights community.

"We see it as a short-term loss," he said of having to find alternate housing for the former tenants, "but a long-term gain."

The city used a unique weapon to take control of the building, declaring in 2005 that it was a "drug nuisance" and revoking its license to operate as a multifamily dwelling. "That put them out of business," Graziano said.

It was the beginning of the end in Baltimore for a landlord who the Department of Housing and Urban Development had called one of the worst participants in its Section 8 voucher program. Allan S. Bird, who owned the Pall Mall and six other apartment complexes in Baltimore and more than 100 nationwide, had been targeted by then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo for raking in more than $24 million a year in federal vouchers but letting many of his properties deteriorate to the point that tenants were living without adequate heat or hot water and amid collapsing ceilings and rodent infestations.

In 1997, Cuomo banned Bird, who died a couple of years ago, from participating in the Section 8 program. (A call on Friday to Bird's company, Real Property Services in North Las Vegas, was not returned.) As The New York Times wrote at the time that Bird and other landlords were suspended from the program, it was an admission that the government had failed at enforcing its own regulations, allowing a group of businessmen to grow wealthy on the backs of the poor whom they were supposed to be serving.

And so it was at the Pall Mall, where, as Graziano said, Bird was "counting his money in Las Vegas" as residents were living with broken doors and appliances, rats, mold and rampant crime. Northwest Police District Maj. Nathan Warfield said he'd been in nearly all of the units at one time or another, raiding them for guns or drugs. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who previously represented the district that included the Pall Mall, said she received call after call about problems at the complex.

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