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Baltimore moves to put even more public housing in private hands

Baltimore’s proposal to tear down six buildings in West Baltimore’s Gilmor Homes project is part of an expanded plan to remake the city’s dilapidated public housing stock — mostly by selling the complexes to private developers.

In May, city officials quietly submitted letters of interest to include the 551-unit Gilmor Homes and East Baltimore’s 630-unit Perkins Homes in a federal program that sells public housing to private developers who promise to make long-needed repairs or redevelop the properties.

In 2015, Baltimore's Housing Authority embarked on a plan to sell 22 public housing complexes to private developers under a national model designed to raise millions for upgrades and maintenance. With Gilmor and Perkins added, 24 of the city’s 38 public housing developments could be included.

While Perkins Homes is planned for a major redevelopment by the builder of the glitzy Harbor Point project, city officials have not announced plans for most of the Gilmor development. They have said six buildings, representing about a fifth of the complex, need to be torn down because they attract crime and are difficult for police to see from the street. They are to be replaced by green space.

“This has nothing to do with gentrification,” said City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young of the Gilmor proposal. “This is about people feeling unsafe. This is about ... making green space and working with the community to see what people want there.”

While Young said he supports the partial demolition of Gilmor Homes, he is skeptical about including it in the privatization program, known as RAD. He’s worried it will lead to the rest of the Gilmor complex’s being operated by a private developer. He’s encouraging Baltimore’s Housing Authority to apply for funds from a state demolition program instead.

“I’m torn about RAD,” he said. “I see where RAD has done a great job and I see where RAD has not worked well. But I understand the Housing Authority doesn’t have the money to do it themselves.”

Housing Authority officials did not respond to questions Thursday, but City Council members who were briefed on the Gilmor plan said the city plans to apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A HUD spokeswoman said Baltimore’s proposed Gilmor and Perkins projects are on the agency’s waiting list and would be funded eventually, but she could not say when. Mayor Catherine Pugh said Wednesday that the demolition at Gilmor is necessary to cut down on crime. The buildings in question are a hotbed for criminal activity, the mayor said. The more than 120 families who would be relocated would be moved to better housing, she said.

News of the planned demolition received mixed reaction at the Gilmor Homes Thursday.

Dwayne Harrison, 49, lives in one of the complexes slated for demolition.

He said was tired of looking at the barren patch of dirt outside his apartment. So he went to Home Depot to buy some mulch, evergreen shrubs, American-flag pinwheels and other garden decorations. He'll often sit on his front steps and watch birds fly by to grab seeds from his new bird feeder, he said.

Harrison learned this week that the city wants to raze his home, and now the garden feels like a waste of time.

"I'm very comfortable here," Harrison said. "This isn't right."

Some Gilmor Homes residents said they agreed with the mayor that the six buildings attract crime and they should be torn down. But others lamented the loss of some affordable housing in a city they fear has priced them out.

"People need these buildings to live in," said Cecelia Burtwell, 58. She comes to Gilmor Homes every day to watch her four grandchildren while her daughter is at work. "Where else they gonna live, with the cost of living so high?"

If crime is really the reason the mayor wants to demolish parts of Gilmor Homes, Burtwell said, she "might as well tear down all of Baltimore."

Bernard Horton disagreed. He thinks it's in residents’ best interest to tear down the buildings, which have been plagued for years by maintenance problems and crime.

"Guys come in doing whatever they're doing," Horton, 59, said. "Shooting drugs, smoking drugs, it's terrible. You see things you don't want to see."

Jane Henderson, the director of Communities United, which advocates for low-income residents, said she’s watching the issue closely.

“We want to make sure people don’t get bumped and have nowhere to go,” she said. “A lot of these buildings probably should be torn down. They haven’t been maintained. The question becomes, what do you do then? They promise vouchers but then there aren’t enough vouchers.”

The six buildings at Gilmor planned for demolition are located on Spray Court, Vincent Court and Bruce Court. The proposal must still gain approval from the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners and HUD.

Meanwhile, city officials have selected a team led by the company behind the Harbor Point development to remake the Perkins Homes in Southeast Baltimore into “high quality housing for people from all income levels.” The move gave Beatty Development Group control of much of the land between Old Town Mall and its $1 billion waterfront project.

Baltimore is the 26th-largest city in the country, but it has the fifth-most 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.

City Councilman Leon Pinkett, who represents the Sandtown neighborhood where Gilmor sits, said he supports the Housing Authority’s plans.

He said there are several options for residents who will be displaced: They can move into vacant housing elsewhere in Gilmor or to other public housing, or use Section 8 housing vouchers to move to eligible homes in the city or nearby counties.

Pinkett said he hoped that some residents of Gilmor could become homeowners through city programs.

“I do commend the Housing Authority for even considering this bold proposal,” he said. “In this instance, we can all agree that specific section of Gilmor Homes is not safe for the residents. This is a chance for us to take some of the vacant properties and create opportunities.”

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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