A towering apartment building in West Baltimore has gained new appliances and bathrooms — and lost old laminate flooring and leaky ceilings — under a controversial federal program that is generating millions of dollars for repairs at nearly half of Baltimore's rundown public housing complexes.
Officials gathered at the Bernard E. Mason Apartments in West Baltimore on Tuesday to celebrate the $38 million renovation that Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said gives the tenants a higher standard of living in the face of a dramatic disinvestment in public housing by the federal government.
The apartment building is one of two dozen complexes being sold to private developers to generate a projected $350 million in improvements for 4,300 housing units, or 40 percent of public housing in Baltimore.
"It's a work in progress, and it's looking good," Graziano said. "The end product is beautiful new, shiny homes for our residents. We're very much committed to seeing this through."
Lawrence Brown, an assistant community health and policy professor at Morgan State University, said the national model — the Rental Assistance Demonstration program — provides a means to making necessary improvements to public housing, but selling the complexes can diminish public oversight.
"What do we give up in the process?" Brown said. "We're privatizing public housing, potentially losing accountability."
The housing authority sold the B.E. Mason complex to Ohio-based developer PIRHL in November for $12.8 million. Graziano said the Housing Authority will continue to finalize sales at various sites through 2017.
The developers receive city and federal tax breaks in exchange for buying the sites, and sign agreements, including ground leases, pledging to keep the units priced for low-income residents in coming decades.
Eligibility and rent will continue to be dictated by the federal government, officials have stressed.
Across the city, about $109 million in renovations are underway at eight complexes, including Lakeview Towers, Bel Park Tower and Hollins House.
Graziano said the repairs and upgrades are evidence of the value of the program. He said residents he talks to have been pleased so far, despite initial anxiety.
"The proof is in the pudding," Graziano said. "Change makes people nervous, and we understand that. We couldn't fully assure people until they actually saw the program in action."
The Housing Authority estimated that public housing in Baltimore had a backlog of $800 million in needed maintenance and repairs while financial support from Washington has declined.
Sandra Overstreet, 73, said renovations at the five-story apartment complex near Leakin Park have given her a nice place to live.
A leaky faucet that was never properly fixed in her old unit kept Overstreet from sleeping some nights, and the old linoleum floors were difficult to keep clean. She moved into a renovated unit in March.
"I couldn't ask for anything better," she said.
Andre Irving, president of the B.E. Mason tenant council, said the developer has done a great job.
Irving, 56, said the new management has been more responsive to problems he has raised on behalf of tenants, and quicker to fix them. The upgrades — such as a new laundry room, individual thermostats for each apartment and new appliances — hold real value for residents, he said.
Residents lived at the complex through the construction, and some have had to move from their previous apartments in order to do so. But Irving said the long-term benefits have been worth the frustrations.
"You're going to have upgrades and downgrades," he said. "You're going to have faults. It's something we all have to live with."
C.J. Tyree, PIRHL's vice president of development, said about 85 of the complex's 225 units have been rehabbed, at an average cost of $62,000 per home. The company plans also to improve common areas, such as a laundry facility and fitness room.
The developer has added a new roof, plumbing and heating and cooling systems in addition to installing new countertops, cabinets and fixtures in apartments. No residents are to be displaced during the renovation. About 30 units were left vacant to allow the developer to shift families around during the construction.
The project should be complete by April, Tyree said.
Graziano said the Housing Authority expects to finalize the sale Wednesday of the town homes at Pleasant View Gardens in East Baltimore.
Devon Wilford-Said, a member of the resident council there, said she awaits the upgrades eagerly but will be watching to make sure no residents get squeezed out.
"The program has a lot of potential," she said.
An earlier version misstated the average cost to renovate each home. The Sun regrets the error.