Tenants leaving decrepit complex High-rise for elderly in city isn't worth fixing, officials say


When tenants of the Broadway, a public housing high-rise for the elderly, began complaining four years ago about poor living conditions, they hoped city officials would do something to help them -- perhaps provide new plumbing or a new air-conditioning system.

What the city is offering instead is a new address.

"The building is ill," said Zachary Germroth, spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. "The plumbing needs work, the elevators are inadequate, there's no air conditioning in the building and on numerous floors there is moisture coming in. After taking a hit in federal funding, we simply don't have the money to do the repairs."

Residents began moving out last month from the 22-story building at 201 N. Broadway, just north of Fells Point. By next year housing authority officials hope the last of the 300 residents will be relocated to other public housing.

For many, moving is an emotional burden.

"This has been my home for 18 years," said Maggie Cole, 72, who shares a one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor with her husband. "Saying goodbye is not going to be easy."

"I understand why the city has told us we need to move, but I wish we didn't have to," said David Dempsey, who has lived in the building for about four years.

The former longshoreman, 52, moved to the Broadway after a stroke left him partially paralyzed. He said he hopes to move into the Douglass public housing development, a low-rise across the street from the Broadway, so that he can continue receiving medical treatment at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Staying close to the hospital is a concern for many tenants.

"A lot of the residents have medical problems," said Cole, who used to work as a personal-care attendant for her neighbors. "Many of them are worried they might have to change doctors."

Another concern common among seniors at the Broadway is that they may be placed with younger tenants -- the kind that they say have caused problems at the high-rise.

Crime became a problem in the building, residents said, when younger tenants started moving into the Broadway in the late '80s. Two changes in federal law caused the shift.

In 1988, the federal Fair Housing Act was amended to open senior housing to the disabled. Apartment complexes once occupied entirely by people 62 years or older soon started taking in tenants half that age. Then in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, expanding the federal definition of disabled to include recovering addicts.

"The result was that the housing authority was placing the victims with the perpetrators," said Harry Karas, president of the Broadway Tenant Association.

He estimates that about 25 percent of the residents at the Broadway are younger than 60.

Federal authorities realized their error in mixing addicts with elderly and other disabled residents by October 1995, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development began allowing housing authorities to designate public apartments for seniors only. Younger tenants were not evicted, but the housing authority recently began to require that new tenants had to be at least 60 years old.

For the elderly tenants of the Broadway, the change came too late to give them peace of mind.

In a six-month period, between Feb. 1 and Aug. 1, police were called to the Broadway 152 times, city records show. Most of the calls were for destruction of property or disorderly conduct.

"I saw an elderly woman beat up -- she was in a wheelchair -- and a man on the tenth floor was tied up and robbed last year," Cole said. She and her sister, Agnes Harper, 81, want to be relocated to one of the city's 15 senior housing developments. They have not decided which one they will request.

"It worries me to death when someone gets hurt or robbed," Harper said, "I'm hoping to move to a senior housing complex, one that doesn't have the kind of problems we do."

Germroth said the tenants of the Broadway will be placed at the top of the waiting list for available public housing units. He added that they will more than likely get their first choices, because of a large number of vacancies in senior housing units.

A permanent move, however, was not the first choice of many tenants, who had expected that repairs would be made and they would be able to return to the Broadway.

In a letter dated July 10, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III informed tenants that " based on available funding, rehabilitation of the Broadway High Rise could be completed by June 2000."

But the housing authority changed its position this month, after concluding that the building needed major work, including new kitchens and bathrooms.

"After looking at the building, we realized it didn't make sense to make those kinds of changes because even after the changes were made, the Broadway would still not meet today's [building code] regulations," said Edward G. Landon, director of the housing authority's engineering and capital improvements division. "The fire system would have to be upgraded -- the building doesn't have a sprinkler -- and once you start doing major renovations, you have to bring everything up to code. We simply don't have the funds that that would require."

Housing officials estimate the needed work would cost between $20 million and $30 million -- money the city doesn't have due to a $26 million cut in federal funding over the past two years.

"We're seeking a private partner to look at the building and evaluate it for alternative uses," said Donna Poggi Keck, director of the housing authority's special needs and replacement division. "It could be used as a nursing home, an office building or for some other use."

Despite the turmoil of moving, tenants said they are happy to leave, given the decrepit conditions.

"In this case, moving people is not negative," Karas said. "It's the best possible thing the housing authority could have done."

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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