City plan to take down troubled housing complex a familiar tactic

City moves to take down troubled complex

September 30, 2010|By Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun

The drug sales, stabbings and shootings at the Madison Park North apartments left the city with no choice, officials say: They are moving to pull the developer's license and move the tenants into other housing. If they succeed in court, new homes for mixed-income residents will likely rise on the site of the Reservoir Hill apartment complex.

The tactic is familiar to Baltimoreans: Shut down a troubled public- or subsidized-housing complex, shuffle tenants into other housing and, in time, replace the apartment buildings with new single-family homes aimed at attracting residents of all income levels.

But while urban planners applaud the dismantling of oppressive and isolating public complexes, experience shows that the process of constructing a successful neighborhood on the rubble of a failed housing experiment is often protracted, tortuous and riddled with setbacks.

"These are complicated deals," said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "But it's a pretty well-established view throughout the country these large developments … were not an ideal design. That concentration of poverty without services, and in many cases with poor management, has created a prescription for real problems. Unfortunately, the real victims are the residents that have to live there."

Officials are slated to break ground Friday on a $200 million development at the former site of the Uplands apartments in Southwest Baltimore — six years after the city purchased the land. A deal to build apartments for the elderly on the site of "The Ranch," a violence-racked Park Heights complex, goes before the city's spending board next week — two years after those buildings were demolished.

As city leaders gear up for a fight with the owners of the Madison Park North Apartments — "Murder Mall," to neighbors and police — residents are fearful that families will be uprooted during the middle of the school year or that they will not be able to find housing at all.

"It's usually the most vulnerable who wind up getting hurt," said Gregory Countess, a Legal Aid Bureau attorney who specializes in housing issues. "Those who are disabled, those who are elderly, those with large families."

If the city is successful in its bid to revoke the complex's multifamily dwelling license, officials say, residents will be given Section 8 vouchers and help finding new housing. But not all may qualify for the vouchers, and there is no guarantee that they will be able to find apartments large enough to accommodate their families. Because it offers three- and four-bedroom apartments, Madison Park is home to many larger families.

"Already some Madison Park residents have been calling around to landlords and have been told, 'We're not taking anyone from Madison Park,'" because of the complex's reputation for violence, Countess said.

In some ways, the city's attempts to reclaim troubled housing complexes mirror efforts in the late 1990s to topple four public housing complexes and replace them with single-family homes for residents with varying economic resources. Much of that funding came from a national initiative known as Hope VI, which sought to replace dangerous and poorly maintained housing complexes with mixed-income developments.

Where the towers of the Murphy Homes once loomed west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the green lawns and tidy brick homes of the Heritage Crossing townhomes now sit. Lafayette Courts and the Flag House Courts near Little Italy have been replaced by mixed-income townhomes, as has Lexington Terrace. And the city swapped the site of the old Broadway Homes high-rise for a parcel a few blocks away and built new townhouses there.

Residents from the high-rises and Uplands were moved to other properties owned by HUD or the city housing authority. In some cases, they were moved to the surrounding counties, Countess said.

About 1,100 single-family homes, condominiums and apartments are slated to be built on the Uplands site, which includes land previously occupied by New Psalmist Baptist Church as well as the sprawling publicly funded apartment complex.

The project was delayed by a four-year legal battle as former tenants sued HUD in federal court over the terms of the sale. Former residents have first dibs on new homes in the development as the result of a class action suit, and more than 200 have signed up to live there, Graziano said.

Diane K. Levy, a housing expert with the Washington-based Urban Institute, is working on a national longitudinal study of families that were relocated as part of Hope VI. While families generally report feeling safer and less anxious in their new homes, the heads of households have not been more likely to find employment, Levy said.

And there is no evidence to back one of the theories most frequently touted by backers of mixed-income developments: That poor people interact with, and benefit from relationships with, middle- and upper-income neighbors, Levy said.

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