Union officials warned Thursday that as many as 200 maintenance workers and building monitors at Baltimore's public housing properties could lose their jobs under a plan intended to infuse the buildings with private money.
Employees such as maintenance mechanic Lucky Crosby Sr., who has worked for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for a decade, say they took the jobs with the understanding that the pay was relatively low, but the work was secure.
"By working for the Housing Authority, we joined the credit union so we could buy homes that we have to finance," said Crosby, 46, of Sandtown-Winchester. "We bought cars that we have to finance."
Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano acknowledged that some jobs might be lost as 22 of the agency's 28 properties are sold to developers over the next two years. He said the Housing Authority is keeping some positions vacant and filling others with temporary workers to reduce the potential number of layoffs.
Graziano said the agency is encouraging the developers to hire some of the workers, and to keep them apprised of the latest information as soon as it's available.
"This is a very large change, a massive change in the way we're doing business, and I understand change does create anxiety," Graziano said. "We're trying to provide whatever assurances we can."
The Housing Authority has identified 11 developers to buy the buildings. Several of them declined to comment Thursday.
The federal government is offering tax credits to developers who buy and renovate public housing.
Officials say the effort is intended to improve the lives of low-income Americans. But in the case of the maintenance workers, Anthony Coates said, it's doing just the opposite.
Coates, president of AFSCME Local 647, said members who lose their jobs could lose their homes.
"We're the working poor," he said.
The maintenance workers, who earn between about $15 and $20 an hour under their most recent contract, want the Housing Authority to tell them how many workers face layoffs, Coates said.
He said knowing the scope of the layoffs is especially important for the older maintenance workers on staff, who may find it harder to get new jobs.
Coates accused the agency of stalling contract negotiations. Senior housing officials rejected the accusation, and said a meeting is scheduled for next week. They said inclement weather forced them to postpone some meetings.
Anthony Scott, executive director of the Housing Authority, said the federal program has unfolded rapidly. The Housing Authority began preparing its application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the summer, submitted it in October and found out it had been approved in December.
"We informed our employees as quickly as we could," Scott said.
Graziano said the agency already has a "significant number of vacancies," but declined to say how many.
It's "a moving target," he said.
On top of that, he said, at least 10 percent turnover is expected each year.
He said Housing Authority workers would be attractive employees for the developers.