Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake staunchly defended her housing chief Wednesday as criticism mounted over Baltimore's public housing, where some residents say lack of maintenance has made their homes unlivable.
In West Baltimore, tenants from several complexes gathered outside the Gilmor Homes to demand that Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano be fired and to condemn "inhumane" conditions — mice scurrying past their children's beds, roaches behind the walls and mold that triggers asthma attacks.
Gilmor Homes resident Tyesha Harrell, 31, described how water leaking through the ceiling caused an electrical fire in her kitchen three weeks ago. She said a nurse who helps care for her disabled son warned that the still-unfinished repairs could cause social workers to take her children.
"I don't think it's good to live like this," Harrell said. "Something really needs to be done."
The tenants' protest comes as elderly and disabled residents of the Lakeview Towers complex near Druid Hill Park returned to their apartments Wednesday after spending two nights in a hotel because of lack of water and heat. And four more women have joined a lawsuit against the Housing Authority of Baltimore City over maintenance men who they say demanded sexual favors in exchange for making repairs, allegedly leaving one resident without heat for two years.
City prosecutors said Wednesday that they've opened a criminal investigation into those assertions.
"Due to the seriousness of the allegations, our office is conducting an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be brought," Tammy Brown, a spokeswoman for Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, said in a statement.
Rawlings-Blake expressed disgust at the allegations, but defended Graziano's handling of them. She said she is "absolutely not" considering firing him.
"If the allegations are true, they're despicable and unacceptable," the mayor told reporters at City Hall. "The commissioner takes those allegations very seriously."
She noted that the Housing Authority is doing its own internal investigation of the allegations in the lawsuit. "I await the results of that investigation," Rawlings-Blake said. "There is no excuse for that type of behavior."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday announced proposed new rules for protecting people in government-sponsored housing from various forms of harassment, including sexual.
Gustavo Velasquez, a HUD assistant secretary, said the proposal is designed in part to help housing providers learn about behavior that constitutes harassment. About 1,600 such complaints have been filed against federally subsidized housing providers in 2015, he said. Sexual harassment claims are the most common of all harassment complaints.
"We see a steady number of cases year after year, but the cases over time have become more egregious," Velasquez said. "We've seen some real despicable behavior on behalf of housing providers. That is reason No. 1."
Velazquez did not speak to the claims outlined in the Baltimore case.
About 15 tenants gathered for the protest at the Gilmor Homes, chanting "Clean house" and "We want justice."
Perry Hopkins, a field organizer with Maryland Communities United, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income people, said the deplorable conditions show systematic disregard for poor, black communities. The sexual harassment alleged in the lawsuit is an example of that, Hopkins said.
"Women were vulnerable because of their living conditions and were taken advantage of," Hopkins said.
One of the protesters, Alice Wilkerson, 71, said the mold in her apartment in West Baltimore's McCulloh Homes is so bad she keeps her clothing in bags and often spends the night with friends or relatives.
When she returned to her home Wednesday morning, Wilkerson said, she found the apartment flooded. Part of the bathroom ceiling was in her tub from a broken water pipe that's caused a water leak for the last year, she said.
"People in McCulloh Homes need help," Wilkerson said.
The protesters said they want to meet with housing officials and provided a list of demands for new sanitation, health and safety standards, effective and accountable management and a comprehensive plan to make all the complexes livable.
In her earlier comments to reporters, Rawlings-Blake pointed to Graziano's plan to privatize about 40 percent of Baltimore's public housing complexes in an effort to speed up repairs on the aging properties.
"The water issue [at Lakeview Towers] underscores the importance of the work he's been doing," the mayor said. "Baltimore City is a leader in the effort to improve the structures of our high-rises. ... The Housing Authority understands these buildings are vulnerable for that type of service breakdown."
The city and federal governments have granted tax breaks to attract developers to buy and renovate 23 public complexes. A September review by The Sun found leaking ceilings, crumbling tiles, mildew, roaches and rat droppings at several complexes to be sold.
Baltimore is the 26th-largest city in the country, but has the fifth-most public housing — more than 11,000 units. The Housing Authority says it would cost $800 million to renovate or repair all of them. The privatization plan will address about half the problem, officials say.
Graziano didn't address the protesters' criticism directly Wednesday, but a statement from his office said the agency's mission is to "ensure that all citizens of Baltimore have access to adequate and affordable housing opportunities in safe, livable and decent neighborhoods."
The agency "takes the safety and well-being of its residents very seriously … and has been diligently working for some time now to improve the living conditions at Gilmor Homes and other public housing developments and will continue to address these issues."