Perkins Homes to be redeveloped under latest demo of Baltimore public housing

The city's public housing stock has dwindled by 30 percent over the last 25 years to fewer than 12,000 units.

Every so often, 60-year-old Roxanne German climbs up a step stool and wraps more packing tape around the ceiling light fixture in her apartment in Baltimore's Perkins Homes, to stop the roaches from crawling into her living room.

"If I didn't tape it up, this house would be full of roaches," German said. "I try to live the best I can. My mother always told me, 'I don't care if you live in an alley, make it as comfortable as you can.' "

It could be worse: Perkins Homes, a boxy, red-brick complex that sits on nearly 17 acres of prime real estate near Fells Point, is to be torn down to make way for a mix of privately owned housing designed to accommodate families at various income levels.

German wonders if she will have a home in the new development.

"All I ask is to allow me to move into another unit," she said.

Perkins, home to 1,400 people in 629 units, is to be sold to private developers. The land underneath the complex is perhaps more valuable than ever: It's wedged between the $1 billion waterfront Harbor Point development, the planned transformation of the long-distressed Old Town Mall in East Baltimore and the revitalization effort surrounding Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The city's public housing stock has dwindled by 30 percent over the last 25 years to fewer than 12,000 units. Another 4,000 are being sold to private developers to generate millions of dollars for improvements — money that officials say is needed because federal contributions have declined dramatically over recent decades.

Housing officials have shared few details on the Perkins redevelopment. They say planning is in the preliminary stages. Early proposals show plans to nearly double the number of homes on the property to 1,100, at a cost of up to $200 million over a decade.

Housing activist Perry Hopkins said he worries Perkins residents will be displaced in an attempt to rid a ritzy part of the city of its low-income neighbor.

"They are going to be disconnected from their culture and their community," said Hopkins, an organizer with Maryland Communities United. "What's going to happen is, they're going to get shuffled like a deck of cards and spread out all over the city or the county.

"It seems that poor people are in the way of the gentrification that's going on."

About half a mile from Perkins Homes, workers are busy raising Harbor Point, 27 acres to feature apartments, hotels, waterfront parks, a promenade and a skyscraper to house the Exelon headquarters.

Critics say the project's developers took advantage of tax breaks designed for impoverished areas to secure a projected $88 million in property tax credits.

Beatty Development Group did not respond to a request for comment. Project supporters, including the Baltimore Development Corp., backed the receipt of the tax incentives, saying Harbor Point will create jobs and spur economic activity.

Hopkins said residents must "kick the door open" to get information on any future development deals that could put the interests of the wealthy ahead of average families. He said Maryland Communities United would remain vigilant as plans for Perkins move forward.

"We must continue to demand full exposure," Hopkins said. "All agencies must establish a system of honest and true communication. The citizens of Baltimore, including the residents of Perkins Homes, are demanding it."

Economist Anirban Basu, who runs the Baltimore-based consulting firm Sage Policy Group, said concerns about housing affordability amid expansive redevelopment are legitimate, and continued community participation will be important.

Working together, he said, the community can achieve higher quality affordable housing and widespread transformation.

He pointed to the revitalization around Hopkins, which will include 2,100 owner-occupied and rental homes, a life sciences research center, offices, schools, parks and retail outlets, such as fresh food stores.

He said the project has been bolstered by both the rapid growth of the area's Hispanic community — creating fresh demand for services and expanding the labor force — and an army of smaller investors who have purchased row homes, torn off Formstone, added granite countertops and laid down wood floors.

"The redevelopment of Perkins Homes and Old Town Mall will add to the area's momentum," Basu said.

Sage has worked with Beatty Development Group. East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit steering the redevelopment near Hopkins, is also a client.

Tanetta Wilson, a 15-year resident of Perkins, said she is worried residents will be moved to areas with less access to jobs, transportation and the amenities city living can offer, such as the proximity to entertainment at the waterfront.

"I love it down here," she said. "You can leave out your door and go that way" — gesturing south — "and it's the harbor. There are so many job opportunities down here, and we have friendly neighbors."

Redevelopment talks began in February 2014, when the city housing authority launched a series of meetings with residents, community partners and neighborhood groups.

Initially, housing officials were pursuing a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build mixed-income housing. This month, however, officials said they dropped the grant proposal after HUD moved the deadline up by eight months.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the agency has involved Perkins residents — and will continue to do so — in the planning. He pledged that any resident not facing eviction for lease violations would be offered housing in the new redevelopment.

"Any resident who is good standing will have the right to come back," Graziano said. "We are engaged in a planning process, which starts with and fully includes the residents of Perkins Homes."

Gregory L. Countess, director of housing advocacy and community economic development at Maryland Legal Aid, is working with Perkins residents. He said they're concerned that the value of the real estate could affect how much subsidized and affordable housing is built.

He said members of Perkins' tenant council are working with housing officials. They want the redevelopment to bring better housing, improvements to neighborhood schools, better public safety, new recreational facilities and the addition of a nearby affordable grocery store.

Countess said they also want equitable treatment.

"What residents don't want is to be segregated on one portion of the site," he said. "What they want is that the same amenities, the same building standards that are used for market-rate housing is used in the construction of their units."

Housing officials say they intend to use a ground lease to ensure that the units remain affordable, and want to find nearby parcels to help reduce density on the 16.8-acre site.

Plans would be subject to the city's design review process and HUD approval.

A team of developers was selected last year, including Virginia-based CRC Partners, Washington-based Northern Real Estate Urban Ventures and Baltimore architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht.

Graziano called it a public-private partnership.

"Whatever happens is certainly not going to happen overnight," Graziano said. "This is a 10-year or more build-out process. We are just in the very preliminary discussion stages."

Graziano has said repeatedly that the city needs to find new ways to improve the aging public housing complexes.

Federal funding for capital improvements to the complexes has dropped from $42 million in 1993 to $15 million today. About half of that goes to paying down debt, leaving less than $7 million annually to spend on building improvements.

Jaime Alison Lee, director of the Community Development Clinic at the University of Baltimore, said the housing authority's reliance on private money makes the Perkins Homes site an attractive choice for redevelopment. Creating mixed-income developments also opens the door for developers to receive an assortment of tax incentives.

"Properties like Perkins Homes, in the middle of gentrification, are more likely to attract investment," Lee said. "There is a lot of profit to be made."

One area to watch, she said, is whether the complex will tighten the rules for tenants, such as requiring stricter credit checks, landlord references or criminal background checks. Such measures have been used to weed out certain residents.

Trudy P. McFall, co-founder and chairwoman of the nonprofit developer Homes for America, said Baltimore's housing faces aging structures, limited money from the federal government and no "magic formula."

"It you sit there with aging properties, there is no solution at hand except the redevelopment one," she said. "There is no such as thing as new construction, and what HUD is offering is barely enough to eke along. I would start by saying, 'Good for Baltimore.'"

Perkins is one of a dozen complexes that opened in the early 1940s under a "slum clearance" program that also included Gilmor, Latrobe, McCulloh and Poe homes. More were built and torn down in subsequent waves of redevelopment.

Over decades, the city has seen its public housing whittled away. In Northeast Baltimore, for example, more than 450 low-income houses were lost when the Claremont Homes and Freedom Village Apartments were demolished and replaced by the Orchard Ridge development.

Jeff Singer, a longtime housing advocate in Baltimore, said some 300,000 public housing units nationwide have been lost in the last 20 years.

"The displacement and gentrification has created some real disadvantages for poor neighborhoods and folks," he said. "We have people who can't find affordable housing."

Perkins resident Ann Spencer lived at Hollander Ridge on the eastern edge of the city for 23 years before it was demolished in 2000. A $32 million industrial park was built on the site.

Spencer, 67, said she was promised she could return to Hollander Ridge after it was redeveloped. She's hears similar promises now about Perkins.

"I am not knocking progress," she said. "But they said the same thing about Hollander Ridge."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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