Baltimore officials plan to relocate more than 120 families from West Baltimore’s troubled Gilmor Homes public housing project and demolish six buildings.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday that the move is necessary to cut down on crime. The buildings in question are a hotbed for criminal activity, the mayor said.
The roughly 132 units proposed for demolition house more than 120 families, Pugh said. She said they would be moved to better housing.
“That’s a really high-crime area right there,” the mayor said. “The line of sight is terrible. The residents have complained about the violence. … Gilmor Homes was one of the places on our listening tour. People complained about not feeling safe.”
The six buildings are located on Spray Court, Vincent Court and Bruce Court. Baltimore Housing spokeswoman Tania Baker said that they “present particular challenges due to the physical conditions and safety concern.”
She said the proposal must still gain approval from the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We anticipate that planning and design will occur over the next 18 months,” she said.
State Del. Antonio Hayes, who was briefed on the plans, said city officials seemed most concerned about drug dealing on the premises.
“What I would like to see is there be a true conversation with the residents living there about the relocation,” Hayes said. “Gilmor Homes have already experienced a lot. There’s drug dealing and rat infestation. I’m hoping they hear out the concerns of the residents and give them an opportunity to live in areas where they have opportunity without subjecting them to the same conditions.”
The 600-unit complex in West Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood has been in disrepair for years. It drew national attention in 2015 when it was the scene of Freddie Gray’s arrest. The Baltimore Sun reported that year that the complex had a backlog of nearly 500 outstanding work orders for repairs.
Also in 2015, women at the complex filed a lawsuit alleging that maintenance workers demanded sexual favors in return for repairing a gas leak, exterminating roaches and making other improvements. Housing officials settled the suit for $8 million.
The city has attempted to make improvements.
The Gilmor Homes Community Center reopened last year after being closed for at least 15 years. And the housing authority launched a Jobs Plus program with a $2.5 million federal grant to help connect residents with education and employment.
Baltimore is the 26th-largest city in the country, but it is the fifth-most in public housing — more than 11,000 units, many of them deteriorating. The Housing Authority says renovating or repairing all of them would cost $800 million.
The city has embarked on a federal privatization plan to address about half the problem, officials say.
The plan involves the city’s selling 40 percent of its public housing to private developers to raise money for upgrades and maintenance. The federal government is offering tax credits to developers who buy and renovate public housing.
Ray Kelly, a lifelong Sandtown resident who leads the advocacy group No Boundaries Coalition, said he sees demolition at Gilmor Homes as part of a larger gentrification plan for West Baltimore that includes clearing “the land so it can be appealing for developers.”
“When you add to a plan a complex like Gilmor Homes that houses so many but also has these issues that trickle out into the neighborhoods, it is a win-win for the state, the city and developer,” Kelly said. “Not only do you get this cleared land, the crime moves to a new place.”
The problem, he said, is what gentrification does to a long-impoverished community: Pricing people out of their neighborhoods destroys cultures that help make up the fabric of the city.
“Sadly, the first precursor to a negative gentrification is demolition,” Kelly said. “When buildings are torn down ... the property values go up and indigenous people are forced out. There is a constant battle to camouflage gentrification and hide it with words like ‘innovation’ and ‘revitalization.’ ”
Ericka Alston-Buck, founder of Kids Safe Zone, asked what the city plans to do with the land opened up by the proposed demolition.
She said tearing down buildings just gives the Sandtown-Winchester community "more empty lots that attract rats."
“If there is not a plan to redevelop — to do something meaningful with the space — I think this is just another thing that tells the community: ‘We’re knocking you down and we’re knocking you out,’” Alston-Buck said.
But state Del. Nick J. Mosby, who represents the area, said he would like to see the entire Gilmor Homes complex torn down and rebuilt. “We need to do a comprehensive rebuild of all Gilmor Homes,” he said. “If I could go after any public housing complex in Baltimore City in terms of a total redevelopment, it would totally be Gilmor Homes.”
Longtime Baltimore civil rights leader Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, who lives three blocks from the complex, said that most people who know the condition of the Gilmor Homes would say the buildings should be demolished.
“If you just drive past them, you’d say, ‘Yes, this place needs to come down,’ ” he said. “But we’re talking about people, not just buildings.”
Before moving forward, Cheatham said, the city must make plans for relocating current residents. Officials should consider where children will attend school, and whether the neighborhoods to which residents are relocated have adequate grocery stores and health care providers.
“A great injustice has taken place with Gilmor Homes in the last 20 years,” he said. “Do the buildings need to come down? More than likely, yes. There are as many apartments in bad condition as in good condition. It may be a very positive thing for them to come down — but we won’t know for sure until we see a plan. We have to make certain that this happens correctly, and that means putting the residents first.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.