Roxanne German would love nothing more than for someone to knock down her problem-plagued apartment — and the whole Perkins Homes public housing complex — to rebuild fresh.
When the Housing Authority of Baltimore City selected Harbor Point developer Beatty Development and its partners last week to raze the 17-acre site and build a new mixed-income development, it might have seemed like a dream come true.
But German, 61, remains unconvinced the project will help her.
“Even though they promised us whoever lived here now, once the property goes down and comes back up, they have to give us a place,” she said, “I really don’t believe that.”
The city plans to apply for a $30 million grant for the project through the federal Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which would require the replacement of every subsidized unit knocked down. But the Obama-era program has been shrinking and its funding is in jeopardy under President Trump’s proposed budget cuts for 2018. Housing advocates worry that if the city doesn’t get the grant, the housing authority would agree to reduce the number of affordable units in order to assure the project remains attractive to the developers.
“Baltimore cannot afford to lose any more affordable housing,” said Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for ACLU of Maryland’s Fair Housing Project. “This is a unique situation because it is affordable housing in a high-opportunity part of the city and the city has done virtually nothing to to develop affordable housing in the opportunity areas of the city.”
Even with the grant, not all 1,400 people who live in Perkins’ 630 apartments will be able to return. While the Choice Neighborhoods initiative requires every subsidized unit be replaced, not all have to be built within Perkins’ current footprint. Some can — and will — be constructed elsewhere.
The federal grant also requires the project to include units at other income levels, so some of the subsidized units will have to be located outside the existing Perkins Homes site, said Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Housing.
City lawmakers say they are committed to protecting affordable housing and ensuring the site’s redevelopment benefits its current residents.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement that her administration is "fully committed to transforming the Perkins Homes community for the residents" and replacing all affordable housing units. "This is my administration's commitment and what residents deserve," she said.
Councilman Robert Stokes, who represents the area, said his goal is to make sure every Perkins Homes resident who wants to stay is able to do so.
“The residents who currently live at the site should have the ability to remain on the site in what would be a world class development,” he said.
Still, Perkins residents and housing advocates who have watched the city’s affordable housing stock dwindle over the years are skeptical. They worry about where residents will be moved during redevelopment, if they all will be welcomed back to the neighborhood and whether they’ll be able to afford the newly built homes there.
Moving residents to newly created affordable units outside of Perkins Homes could disrupt residents’ social circles, make it harder for them to get to work and deprive them of living in an area with lots of opportunity, said Lawrence Brown, an assistant professor at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health & Policy.
Perkins Homes neighbors Harbor East, the ritzy waterfront development built by Michael Beatty, who founded the firm bearing his name in 2013, and fellow developer John Paterakis beginning in the 1990s. Not far to the north is the Old Town Mall site, also poised for redevelopment by Beatty. Johns Hopkins is rebuilding around its nearby campus, and there’s easy access to the waterfront and buses.
“That’s what we want. We want lower-income folks, black people especially, to be able to live in white communities and communities of opportunity,” Brown said. “If you’re telling me some people might not be able to stay there, where are they going to end up?”
Details such as where else affordable units could go, how many total units will be built at Perkins and how much the project will cost are still to be determined, Baker said.
The Housing Authority only just began negotiations with the development team, which includes Mission First Housing Development, a nonprofit affordable housing developer; the Henson Development Co.; and Bank of America. The collaboration is called Perkins Point Partners.
Baker said the agency is committed to making sure the neighborhood is part of the process to “create a plan for producing a new, vibrant neighborhood that serves the needs of all residents.”
A spokesman for Beatty Development said the development team is not yet ready to discuss its plans.
Tanetta Wilson, 42, said it is important for the agency and developers to actively engage the neighborhood — not simply inform residents about decisions after they’ve been made.
Wilson, who is a member of the Perkins Homes chapter of Communities United, which helps moderate- and low-income communities organize, has lived in the public housing development for 15 years. She’s fed up with the neighborhood and is ready to move but first wants to do her part to speak up for neighbors who want to stay.
“This is our community, this is our home,” Wilson said. “I’m from Baltimore, born and raised… I just want to be a part of the change and the process.”
While not all Perkins residents will have homes at the site after its redevelopment, advocates worry that even more residents will be displaced if the city is not awarded the federal grant.
Without the grant, the city and its development partners would have to cobble together other sources of funding, possibly delaying the project and compromising on the number of units that would be affordable to low-income residents, said Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a policy research organization in Washington, D.C.
Aside from financing, the city also would lose the community-building aspects of the Choice Neighborhoods program.
“It’s not just let’s tear down this project and rebuild something because it’s broken,” Pendall said. “It’s about rebuilding it as mixed-income housing and catalyzing the neighborhood through that redevelopment.”
The Housing Authority said it has until Nov. 22 to submit its plan for funding consideration. If it’s passed over, the agency and the development team “will reassess the plan and determine financial feasibility at that time,” Baker said.
Even without a federal grant’s mandate, the city has the power to demand that the new development team replace all of Perkins’ affordable units, Pendall said.
“The land is owned by the public — that is the key,” Pendall said. “The city has the power to use it’s regulatory authority to make demands of a developer in exchange for the permission to build more there.”
Councilman Edward Reisinger, who chairs the city council’s land use committee, said he understands why residents may have concerns about the project. He said he is committed to working with other council members to make sure those concerns are heard and get answers to residents’ questions.
Middleton, the committee’s vice chair, said she plans to hold the developers accountable for replacing affordable housing.
“We know that those homes have had struggles and a terrible reputation, and going forward I’m confident that the city will do its due diligence in listening to the residents,” said City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who is vice chair of the council’s land use committee. “I’m going to do my due diligence in making sure this developer does the right thing and is inclusive with that community.”
The ACLU’s Samuels said that would require a departure from business as usual for the city.
“They’re going to have to make some policy decisions to guide this development and require the developer to further those policies,” she said.
German, who has lived in Perkins Homes for almost six years, said she’ll believe it when she sees it.
“I’d love to see it — love it,” she said. “It’s one of my dreams that one day I’ll be living in a decent place.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this report.