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.
"I am convinced they will be very interested in hiring a significant number of our skilled employees who are very knowledgeable," Graziano said.
The sale of the buildings is expected to generate $300 million in upgrades and maintenance for the properties being sold.
After 15 years, if the Housing Authority isn't satisfied with the management by the private developers, the agency can purchase the properties back at a modest cost.
Graziano said the private investment would allow the Housing Authority to address years of maintenance backlogs. In Baltimore, the outstanding maintenance costs are projected at $800 million. Nationally, the backlog tops $26 billion.
Graziano said the problem has compounded over time as money from HUD has been slashed. In 1997, the Housing Authority received $30 million for capital projects, which is down to $12.8 million this year. After outstanding debt is paid and staff costs are factored in, he said, only $4 million is left for renovations on all 28 properties.
The program requires that the properties continue to be rented to the elderly and disabled individuals and low-income families. For the developers to receive the tax credits, the buildings must be rented to low-income tenants for at least 40 years.
The workers aren't the only ones feeling angst over the transition.
Members of the Resident Advisory Board, which serves as a liaison between the tenants and the Housing Authority, say they have mixed feelings. While they're hopeful that faulty elevators and leaky roofs will be replaced, they're suspicious that the developers will fail to follow through on their promises.
"I really am hurt because we're losing a lot of public housing," said the board's president, Ella Broadway, who lives at O'Donnell Heights in Southeast Baltimore.
"I know things change and some things change for the good and sometimes we have to go with the changes. But one thing we have to do is make it right. They have to do it right."
Broadway said residents would push the developers to put their promises in writing. They want provisions that would lock in rental rates and guarantee current tenants won't be thrown out.
"They are dealing with human beings; they can't just see the dollar signs," she said.
Michelle Russell, secretary of the resident board and a tenant of Chase House in Mid-Town Belvedere, said she's scared that the high-rise she lives in isn't structurally sound, and it won't be sold for another two years.
"It's a good thing, if they do what they say," said Russell, who said a two-foot chunk of bricks on her 15th-floor balcony has come loose. "There is so much work that needs to be done. The buildings are kind of falling apart."
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.