City plan to take down troubled housing complex a familiar tactic

The drug sales, stabbings and shootings at the Madison Park North apartments left the city with no choice, officials say: They are moving to pull the developer's license and move the tenants into other housing. If they succeed in court, new homes for mixed-income residents will likely rise on the site of the Reservoir Hill apartment complex.

The tactic is familiar to Baltimoreans: Shut down a troubled public- or subsidized-housing complex, shuffle tenants into other housing and, in time, replace the apartment buildings with new single-family homes aimed at attracting residents of all income levels.

But while urban planners applaud the dismantling of oppressive and isolating public complexes, experience shows that the process of constructing a successful neighborhood on the rubble of a failed housing experiment is often protracted, tortuous and riddled with setbacks.

"These are complicated deals," said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "But it's a pretty well-established view throughout the country these large developments … were not an ideal design. That concentration of poverty without services, and in many cases with poor management, has created a prescription for real problems. Unfortunately, the real victims are the residents that have to live there."

Officials are slated to break ground Friday on a $200 million development at the former site of the Uplands apartments in Southwest Baltimore — six years after the city purchased the land. A deal to build apartments for the elderly on the site of "The Ranch," a violence-racked Park Heights complex, goes before the city's spending board next week — two years after those buildings were demolished.

As city leaders gear up for a fight with the owners of the Madison Park North Apartments — "Murder Mall," to neighbors and police — residents are fearful that families will be uprooted during the middle of the school year or that they will not be able to find housing at all.

"It's usually the most vulnerable who wind up getting hurt," said Gregory Countess, a Legal Aid Bureau attorney who specializes in housing issues. "Those who are disabled, those who are elderly, those with large families."

If the city is successful in its bid to revoke the complex's multifamily dwelling license, officials say, residents will be given Section 8 vouchers and help finding new housing. But not all may qualify for the vouchers, and there is no guarantee that they will be able to find apartments large enough to accommodate their families. Because it offers three- and four-bedroom apartments, Madison Park is home to many larger families.

"Already some Madison Park residents have been calling around to landlords and have been told, 'We're not taking anyone from Madison Park,'" because of the complex's reputation for violence, Countess said.

In some ways, the city's attempts to reclaim troubled housing complexes mirror efforts in the late 1990s to topple four public housing complexes and replace them with single-family homes for residents with varying economic resources. Much of that funding came from a national initiative known as Hope VI, which sought to replace dangerous and poorly maintained housing complexes with mixed-income developments.

Where the towers of the Murphy Homes once loomed west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the green lawns and tidy brick homes of the Heritage Crossing townhomes now sit. Lafayette Courts and the Flag House Courts near Little Italy have been replaced by mixed-income townhomes, as has Lexington Terrace. And the city swapped the site of the old Broadway Homes high-rise for a parcel a few blocks away and built new townhouses there.

Residents from the high-rises and Uplands were moved to other properties owned by HUD or the city housing authority. In some cases, they were moved to the surrounding counties, Countess said.

About 1,100 single-family homes, condominiums and apartments are slated to be built on the Uplands site, which includes land previously occupied by New Psalmist Baptist Church as well as the sprawling publicly funded apartment complex.

The project was delayed by a four-year legal battle as former tenants sued HUD in federal court over the terms of the sale. Former residents have first dibs on new homes in the development as the result of a class action suit, and more than 200 have signed up to live there, Graziano said.

Diane K. Levy, a housing expert with the Washington-based Urban Institute, is working on a national longitudinal study of families that were relocated as part of Hope VI. While families generally report feeling safer and less anxious in their new homes, the heads of households have not been more likely to find employment, Levy said.

And there is no evidence to back one of the theories most frequently touted by backers of mixed-income developments: That poor people interact with, and benefit from relationships with, middle- and upper-income neighbors, Levy said.

"Neighbor relationships generally occur with those similar to themselves," she said. "Lower-income residents form relationships with other lower-income residents. Upper-income residents form relationships with other upper-income residents."

Asked whether the benefits of building mixed-income housing outweigh the drawbacks of disrupting communities, Levy said, "That's a tough question. You could talk to all sorts of different people who would have very different takes on that."

And shutting down privately owned smaller complexes — and redeveloping the sites — can pose its own challenges.

"The Ranch," the nickname given by police to the 48-unit Park Heights complex, has sat dormant since it was demolished nearly two years ago. A chain link fence circles the weed-choked lot where the twin buildings stood, and straggly bushes scattered with empty liquor bottles obscure the pathways.

Park Heights Renaissance Inc. and Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., the nonprofits teaming up to build "Renaissance Gardens," envision a bright and modern building with 46 apartments for elderly residents, many of whom will hail from the neighborhood.

The deal is slated to go before the Board of Estimates on Wednesday but requires approval from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development before construction can begin.

"We are hearing from the community that there is a need for safe, affordable places for seniors to live," said Julius Colon, president and CEO of Park Heights Renaissance.

Richard Coleman Sr., 68, a retired construction worker, has lived a few hundred yards away from "The Ranch" for more than 30 years. His tidy brick home stands out in a block with more than half a dozen vacant properties, some of which are charred and crumbling.

He said that the neighborhood has been quieter since "The Ranch" was demolished, but the vacant homes remain havens for drug sales and use.

"That Ranch was a jungle," he said. "Anything you wanted, you could go to the Ranch and get — dope, good beating, a good killing, prostitution. People would come from all over the city to go to the Ranch. There wasn't a day that passed that didn't have police activity."

Police were called to the two blocks surrounding "The Ranch" more than 700 times in 2005, the year the city moved to take the building's license, according to data supplied by Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Last year, they were called about 200 times.

Coleman, who is losing his eyesight to cataracts and glaucoma, said that he avoided walking in the neighborhood because he didn't want others to peg him as vulnerable.

"I can't walk up this street with a cane," he said. "You can't trust people around here."

He said he welcomed plans for a senior apartment complex but said it would need to employ rigorous security to protect tenants.

His neighbor, 54-year-old Pat Johnson, said that the community has been quieter since The Ranch came down, but said she didn't like seeing the vacant lot where it stood.

"In some ways, I liked it better when it was up," said Johnson, who has lived in the area for two decades. "Someone was always around. There was always someone you knew."

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