The sprawling and aged Perkins Homes public housing complex will be redeveloped under a preliminary agreement with a team led by the company behind Harbor Point, giving the developer control of much of the land in Southeast Baltimore between Old Town Mall and its $1 billion waterfront project.
Housing Authority of Baltimore City selected Beatty Development Group and its partners to replace the 75-year-old complex with "high quality housing for people from all income levels." Officials did not release details about the project, saying they must still negotiate with the developers.
The complex, home to roughly 1,400 people in about 630 apartments, sits on 17 acres of prime real estate that is seen as a critical link between the rising development on the harbor, the revitalization effort surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital and the planned transformation of the long-distressed pedestrian mall.
Affordable housing advocate Barbara A. Samuels said the Perkins project could be a watershed moment in Baltimore. She said the development plan should not only match one-for-one Perkins' subsidized housing but spread the units across the site, as opposed to clustering them and allowing the land to become an extension of the ritzy waterfront.
"Perkins has really unique potential to either further segregation in the city, the two Baltimores, or to begin working toward one Baltimore and resolving that issue," said Samuels, managing attorney for ACLU of Maryland's Fair Housing Project. "Is it going to be used as an opportunity to really start creating a diverse and racially integrated community?"
Eighty-year-old Grace Homer has lived at Perkins for 50 years. Her reaction to hearing about the development agreement was swift: "Tear it down."
Sitting on her front stoop with her dog Sky, Homer said rats and mice have the run of the complex, climbing the buildings' red brick exteriors and hopping into apartments through open windows, or chewing through the walls.
"We're infested with rats, roaches, mice," she said. "It will be for the best if they tear down. It's time."
Beatty Development Group declined to comment on the project.
Working with Beatty is Mission First Housing Development, a nonprofit affordable housing developer; the Henson Development Co.; and Bank of America. The collaboration is called Perkins Point Partners.
Michael Beatty, who founded the firm bearing his name in 2013, previously partnered with fellow developer John Paterakis on the development of Harbor East beginning in the late 1990s. He separated from that endeavor to pursue what is now called Harbor Point, just south along the water from Harbor East.
In addition to Harbor Point, Beatty is a contributing member of a partnership working to redevelop Old Town Mall and the surrounding neighborhoods into 2.2 million square feet of new offices, mixed-income residences, retail and community spaces. The site includes land where the former Somerset public housing development used to stand.
Housing officials say, collectively, Beatty and the other developers have experience in building affordable, mixed-income and market-rate communities, including Fells Point Station, a 47-unit residential project with mixed-income workforce housing and retail space that opened about three years ago.
The housing authority provided little information about the Perkins project other than to say the agency has a desire to create a mixed-income community "that serves the needs of all residents" and is "feasible from a market, financial, and community perspective."
"Redeveloping our most distressed communities and improving the amenities available to Baltimore City residents are major goals of my administration," Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement. "The Perkins transformation project will incorporate a neighborhood plan that combines new housing, infrastructure improvements, economic development, public safety strategies, and enhanced educational opportunities for the community."
Officials want to seek $30 million in federal funding for the project. The city plans to submit a joint grant proposal with the housing authority for money from the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The program is intended to support "locally-driven strategies to transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into sustainable, mixed-income communities," according to officials. Its future under the Trump administration is uncertain.
A previous deal to redevelop Perkins Homes fell apart last summer. Virginia-based CRC Partners withdrew from the roughly $200 million project after many months of planning. Neither the Housing Authority nor the developer would say at the time why the deal collapsed.
Early proposals from the previous plan called for nearly doubling the number of homes on the property to 1,100 with construction stretching over a decade.
Local housing authorities have turned increasingly to private companies to finance the revitalization of public housing into mixed-income residences amid sustained cutbacks in federal spending on subsidized housing for the poor. Over the last 25 years, the city's public housing stock has dwindled by about 30 percent to fewer than 12,000 units. Another 4,000 are being sold to private developers to generate millions of dollars for improvements.
Samuels, the housing advocate, said the community must be vigilant to ensure that the "feasibility" of the eventual development plan isn't just a code word for "profitable."
"It's going to be very important for the city and the housing authority and the residents to really draw a line in the sand and say, 'This is not going to be an extension of Harbor East, this is not going to be an opportunity to remove public housing and magnify the two Baltimores,' " Samuels said.
Lawrence Brown, associate professor in Morgan State University's School of Community Health and Policy, took issue with Beatty's involvement in the redevelopment.
Brown said Beatty's company, Harbor Point Development Group LLC, already benefited from the poverty of surrounding areas by qualifying for an estimated $88 million in Enterprise Zone tax credits for the waterfront project. Such tax breaks are meant to help improve impoverished areas.
Brown said he also is concerned that Beatty, along with his company's partners, would control so much land. City planners should require — and community members should insist — the developers scatter affordable housing throughout the area, from the waterfront to Hopkins, he said.
"When this process plays out, how do you set it up in a way so that residents are really empowered in deciding how do we want this process to go, not having Beatty and developers come in and dictate the process," Brown said.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, said she's confident Beatty will "listen to and pay attention to what residents in the area want."
She has been involved in the ongoing discussions about Perkins' redevelopment, and vowed to work closely with the city, the housing authority and the developments to ensure the current residents' needs are met.
"As we've learned across America, the public housing model that was used in the mid-20th century is a failed model and we need to find a way to move past that," Lierman said. "There are many examples of successful, truly mixed-income neighborhoods. There's no reason we should not have more mixed-income housing throughout the entire city."
Redevelopment talks began in early 2014 when the housing authority began meeting with residents, community partners and neighborhood groups.
Terry Watkins, who has lived in Perkins Homes for three years, called the housing complex a missing link to a more prosperous Baltimore.
He sees the redevelopment project as an opportunity to lift the complex — and the people who live in it — to new opportunities. Working with the developers, Johns Hopkins, nearby homeowners and other stakeholders, Perkin's residents can reimagine the future, he said.
"If we're not coming together, it's not going to work," said Watkins, 54, who takes pride in keeping the second-floor apartment he shares with his wife, 14-year-old daughter and dog, Kiss, clean with emerald green paint in the kitchen and clear caulking lining the floorboards to keep rodents at bay.
"People on the outside can't do it alone."