Shanay Waller cut a lonely figure as she crossed the quiet courtyard near her Perkins Homes apartment one recent afternoon, a nearby dumpster brimming with broken bed frames, cushionless couches and other discarded pieces of her neighbors’ disrupted lives.
Most residents at this end of her East Baltimore public housing complex had already moved out, with new Section 8 vouchers to rent apartments elsewhere or new placements in other complexes not slated for demolition. Now Waller, 31, was about to move, too, having received her own voucher for a place on a leafy block in Northeast Baltimore’s Cedonia neighborhood, where she says she can worry less about her three kids playing outside.
“It’s definitely a great start to a new beginning,” said Waller, who’s hoping to find work once she settles into her new place. “I really believe that this is really going to help a lot of people — push us to do better.”
Lauretta Edwards, twice Waller’s age at 62, teared up as she overheard. A retired retail worker with a bad back, Edwards said she didn’t want to leave her own apartment of the last 12 years, but didn’t have a choice. It was coming down, just like the others, she said, and soon she was headed to a new apartment on North Avenue.
“I wish I could have foreseen this,” Edwards said. “I would have picked some place more long term, where I could live out my life. To pick up and move at 62 is not an easy thing.”
For months now, residents have been navigating a range of emotions around the coming end to Perkins Homes, a World War II-era housing complex that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City recently received $30 million in federal funding to demolish — making way for a new mixed-use community of replacement public housing and market rate apartments.
Some residents have already packed up and left as part of the first phase of a five-phase effort to empty the entire Perkins complex, home to more than 600 households, by 2021. Many went happily, others felt forced. Among those who remain, there is excitement and fear, and a fair amount of confusion about how the next phases will play out.
Housing officials have touted the plan as providing better homes for poor residents, but some housing advocates have criticized it for reducing the amount of public housing within walking distance of the city’s growing waterfront neighborhoods and all the opportunities they offer. Baltimore has steadily lost public housing for years, while the Housing Authority just announced it will stop accepting applications next month because of “overwhelming demand.”
Grace Homer, in her early 80s and a resident of Perkins for about 50 years, said the housing complex had provided her with a happy life, and she was sad to leave. But the Perkins units have badly deteriorated, are full of rats and roaches and need to come down, she said — especially given all the potential for the land.
“They’ve done all that [development] down the harbor and around it," Homer said. "They’re not gonna leave all this.”
Indeed, the demolition is part of a much larger, nearly $900 million redevelopment of what Housing Authority executive director Janet Abrahams calls the “hole in the doughnut” — the chunk of land, including Perkins, that sits smack in the middle of some of Baltimore’s fastest growing neighborhoods. To the west is Little Italy and the Inner Harbor, to the south and east the increasingly posh waterfront neighborhoods of Fells Point, Harbor East and Harbor Point.
From the courtyards and squat brick buildings of the Perkins complex, the skyline looking south is already a string of towers and construction cranes. And city officials say the views in other directions could look similar in coming years, as redevelopment continues around Johns Hopkins Hospital to the north and new work begins at the now-dilapidated site of the Old Town Mall.
Abrahams said her quasi-governmental agency, in consultation with the city, Baltimore City Public Schools and four private sector partners, aims to turn the existing Perkins footprint, two adjacent school properties — City Springs Elementary School and its Early Learning Center — and the old Somerset Court public housing site near Hopkins into one cohesive neighborhood, known as Perkins Somerset Old Town.
City officials say the outcome will be better for everyone. While 629 public housing units at Perkins are being demolished, 466 will be replaced there and another 186 will be built on the old Somerset site, for a net gain of 23 units within six years, Abrahams said. All around those units will come the new school, grocery stores and restaurants, new infrastructure and green space, she said.
The new neighborhood will connect the city’s waterfront with the evolving neighborhood around Hopkins, she said, becoming a destination in its own right and a jewel of future Baltimore.
“You have so many different, wonderful things happening in the area that it’s only right that you look at the hole in the doughnut, where there is no activity, where the Housing Authority has the footprint to use to create change,” Abrahams said. “We want to become the catalyst for change."
Many residents and city officials have lauded the Housing Authority for the plans. But there are critics, too.
The Perkins project is the latest in a long line of public housing demolitions and redevelopments in the city in recent decades, many of which left Baltimore with fewer public housing units despite overwhelming need. The authority maintains fewer than 7,000 units today — compared to more than 16,500 in the early 1990s — while 14,000 people sit on its waiting list. Separately, the authority administers about 17,000 Section 8 vouchers, with another 25,000 people on its voucher waiting list.
The Housing Authority’s $30 million federal grant for the Perkins project requires a “one for one” replacement of public housing units within the same neighborhood or one of equal opportunity. Housing Authority officials say the project goes beyond its “one for one” mandate by adding units at Somerset, which account for the net gain in units.
But a decade ago, Baltimore demolished 257 units at Somerset and didn’t replace them. Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for the ACLU of Maryland’s Fair Housing Project, accuses the Housing Authority of playing a “shell game” with its already diminished public housing stock by counting new Somerset units as replacement housing for the lost Perkins units, instead of for the lost Somerset ones. Housing officials have said they helped the displaced Somerset residents find homes, and there was no requirement to rebuild at that site.
Some housing advocates also argue the Housing Authority invented the Perkins Somerset Old Town neighborhood to justify shifting units from the Perkins footprint near the waterfront to a triangle of land further north where public housing and poverty is already concentrated, including in the Douglas Homes, Latrobe Homes and Pleasant View Gardens complexes.
“Historically, the effort has been to contain poor people within certain geographically prescribed locations. I don’t think that has changed," Samuels said. “I don’t see any indication through their actions that there is any kind of intentional effort to merge the two Baltimores, to integrate the two Baltimores, to create one community."
The fact that the Housing Authority and the city picked Beatty Development Group — the company behind the Harbor East and Harbor Point redevelopments — to also lead the Perkins Somerset Old Town redevelopment project raises eyebrows. Samuels says the company has an incentive to make decisions that benefit its surrounding upscale properties, not the Perkins residents.
Beatty did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Abrahams said the company, along with its three other private sector partners, won the work through a competitive bidding process. They took their cues from the Perkins residents, not the other way around, she said, and the project reflects the residents’ desires as a result.
“They will be able to take advantage of all of the amenities that they wanted, such as a new school, parks, the walkability,” she said. “They’ll be able to live in a community, watch it grow around them and enjoy that.”
Many residents said the Housing Authority has tried to do right by them, keeping track of who wants to return to Perkins once the new units are built and providing those who wanted to move on with coveted vouchers or alternative placements. The agency is also paying displaced residents’ moving costs, they said.
“I’m loving it," said Denise Street, 66, vice president of the tenant council and a Perkins resident for nearly 50 years. Street expects to move away temporarily before returning. She won’t like being away from the place she’s called home for most of her life, she said, but is excited about coming back to something better.
“There’s finally some progress being made," she said.
School system officials say the project’s brand new 950-seat school will be great for kids from Perkins, but also other students across Southeast Baltimore, where other schools will see overcrowding eased.
“It is a win for the city, for city school students, for City Springs students,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff to schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “This will provide expanded educational options for students in a part of the city that’s overcrowded.”
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Greg Countess, an attorney with Maryland Legal Aid who has long represented tenant councils, including at Perkins, said the fact the plans increase the total number of public housing units in the city, even slightly, is an improvement over most other recent redevelopment in Baltimore.
“We’ve been fighting from the 1990s through the early 2000s against the Housing Authority losing public housing units," he said.
Now, time will tell if everything plays out as promised, he said.
“The Housing Authority is saying a lot of the right things, and the developers, for what it’s worth, are saying a lot of the right things,” Countess said. “The question behind all of this, though, is what happens when you put it into operation? Are they going to be able to deliver?”
Ashley Davis, 32, hopes so. Right now, she lives alone on disability benefits in a small unit near the Perkins leasing office, part of the final phase of demolition in 2021. She’s been told she’ll have to move out, of course, but maybe just to a new unit within the complex — which she would love.
“I like the area close to the harbor,” she said. “I want to be down this way.”
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.