Projects' residents reject HOPE They distrust program to revive run-down Annapolis housing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Drugs and crime make Louise Prather and her six children prisoners inside a stuffy and rundown two-bedroom apartment in College Creek Terrace, a public housing complex just blocks from the historic State House.

But she dismisses talk of a chance at a $25 million federal grant designed to bring new houses, new jobs and home ownership as "promises that are too good to be true."

"Everybody keeps talking about hope," says Prather, 31, who has lived in public housing most of her life. "There is no hope. At least now I have a roof over my head."

Such skepticism has led her neighbors in the Clay Street community to reject the Annapolis Housing Authority's offer to apply for the aid, known as HOPE VI. City officials still are lobbying residents to endorse the plan to revive dilapidated, obsolete housing projects, but any approval will come grudgingly.

While some in Baltimore have embraced the federal program, the suspicions voiced on Clay Street have been sounded in many cities across the nation. In Chicago, Houston and San Francisco, public housing residents also have rejected the opportunity because of lingering doubt triggered by decades of broken government promises, racial discrimination and poverty.

"It's not a simple rejection of millions of dollars," says Wim Wiewel, dean of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Poor, black populations, which make up most of these HOPE VI projects, have such a history of being displaced in the last 40 to 50 years that you can't blame them for being suspicious."

In Annapolis, Clay Street residents feared that HOPE VI was an updated version of the urban renewal project of 30 years ago that moved many of their neighbors to public housing on the city's borders. When the city housing authority suggested applying for the grant to demolish Obery Court and College Creek Terrace and replace them with townhouses, the community revolted.

HOPE VI is just "the same game with a different name," says Robert H. Eades, a longtime Clay Street resident who is one of HOPE VI's fiercest opponents. "I watched what the devil has done."

Public housing was created as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal to provide temporary homes for those who lost theirs in the Great Depression, but experts say urban renewal and other government programs have contributed to its downfall ever since.

By the late 1970s, many of those developments were little more than warehouses for extremely poor, mostly minority tenants isolated "from the mainstream, jobs, success and role models," says Peter Dreier, professor of public policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles who also spent 10 years as the director of housing in Boston.

"I think tearing down public housing as we know it is a good thing," Dreier said.

Designed to do just that, HOPE VI is based on the notion that poor people who live near middle-income families will work to improve their situations, which could reduce crime rates.

Fifty-two housing authorities have received about $2 billion worth of HOPE VI grants since its inception in 1992. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development receives about 200 applications a year, but awards only 25, says Stan Vosper, a HUD spokesman.

To win a grant, HUD requires that resident participation and input be an integral part of any HOPE VI project. The requirement has proven to be a major obstacle for many of the projects.

While Baltimore and Charlotte, N.C., housing officials went out of their way to get resident input, officials in some cities discouraged it.

Annapolis housing officials encouraged resident participation, but only heard stories of how urban renewal almost destroyed a community where free Africans lived in the 1600s and black-owned businesses thrived in the 1950s. Residents said "urban removal" forced black families out when their homes weren't rebuilt, destroying the customer base for such black-owned businesses as Alsop's Restaurant, Susie's Tea Room and Jeanette's Beauty Shop.

It is not surprising then that residents believe the Housing Authority and the City of Annapolis are trying to take the rest of the valuable waterfront property where the housing projects lie on the edges of the Historic District.

"They have taken enough from black people," says Tanya Booth, 39, whose great-grandmother lived in an apartment in College Creek Terrace. "Just let us keep the little that we got."

Petition signed

Hope for HOPE VI died after more than 100 residents signed a petition opposing the plan and city housing officials, baffled by the opposition, decided to wait until next year. But recent community meetings to talk about next year's plans also have ended contentiously.

"It has been a difficult trial for us to get information to the residents," says Patricia H. Croslan, who took over as executive director of the city Housing Authority in January. "We thought it was time residents needed. But now, we don't know what the issue is."

According to a HUD study of 15 HOPE VI projects, similar problems led to the undoing of plans in other cities, while more successful HOPE VI projects were found in cities where strong tenant organizations work with the housing agency.

HOPE VI plans were interrupted for Bernal Dwellings in San Francisco when two drug dealers played upon management mistrust, took over the tenant council and announced plans to prevent demolition of the property. In Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, residents also accused the city of trying to take back valuable property. In Atlanta, residents fought back when the housing authority announced plans to renovate Techwood Homes, the country's first public housing complex.

Houston's experience with two HOPE VI projects best parallels what happened in Baltimore and Annapolis.

Idea embraced

Residents of Houston's Clayton Homes embraced the idea of demolishing and replacing their old public housing, but residents of Allen Parkway Village, about 15 miles across town, vehemently rejected HOPE VI after receiving a grant in 1995.

Allen Parkway residents, who also experienced urban renewal, fought a city plan to sell the valuable property near the downtown business district for 14 years. A historically black community settled by free slaves, Allen Parkway should be preserved, argued residents who sued and held up the demolition until last year.

"It was unfortunate," says Robert Reyna, a Houston Housing Authority spokesman. "I think a lot of it circles around that simple issue of trust and the belief that people will keep their word. Urban renewal is a 20-year-old phenomenon. It's still fresh in people's minds."

Urban sociologist Dreier says much of the rejection also can be blamed on the fear of being homeless -- in some cases, losing homes that have been passed down from generation to generation.

HOPE VI comes without guarantees. Some residents might not qualify to buy a home in the new community despite promises by HOPE VI to help people who spent most of their lives on government assistance become self-sufficient. Also, HOPE VI projects tend to cut the number of residences in half.

"They have a roof over their head, they're paying about 30 percent of their income on rent," Dreier says. "Bad public housing is better than no housing at all."

There is hope, housing officials say. Allen Parkway residents continued attending meetings with Houston housing officials and finally began working together, Reyna says.

That's what 50-year-old Gracie Coates is praying will happen in Annapolis. Like Louise Prather, "Miss Gracie" -- as she's known in the community -- is tired of living with crime. She is tired of people knocking on her door, asking for cigarettes, a dollar and the use of her telephone. A hand-written sign taped to her door warns, "Don't knock on this damn door before 11 a.m. and don't after 9 p.m."

More than a month ago, shots were fired in her back yard. One young man injured in the fracas is paralyzed. One bullet, she says, was too close for comfort. "It could have been one of my grandkids," says Coates, who prefers staying safely inside her apartment. "I'm ready for a change. It's time for a change. If change makes life better, then I'm for it, even if I don't get to live in the new houses."

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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