She sat in a rowhouse with bare walls and little furniture yesterday - smiling and imagining the possibilities. What started out a nightmare, said Rhonda Calhoun, had become a beautiful dream.
And the three-story brick rowhouse in Butchers Hill, though mostly empty, was her proof that "the beautiful dream" was real.
Calhoun's family was one of eight that found themselves living in a state of fearful limbo over the past few weeks, spread thin between two abandoned public housing projects in East Baltimore: Broadway Homes, across from Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Flag House Courts, near Little Italy. Both projects are being torn down this fall to make way for complexes with a smaller concentration of low-income apartments. The city, which has had to move everyone out, struggled to find homes for the last few families.
But Saturday afternoon, a moving truck hauled off the Calhoun family's belongings from their Broadway Homes apartment, depositing them inside her new rowhouse on East Baltimore Street. With that, the 45-year-old volunteer teacher's aide and her family became the last to move from the projects, according to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
Calhoun said that no more than 15 minutes after she had left, a robber entered her old home and stole her refrigerator. "Someone must've been watching us leave and knew there wasn't going to be anyone around anymore," said Calhoun, who found out about the theft when she came back to retrieve some food.
During the past six months, almost all of the roughly 1,000 residents at the complexes have been moved out by the city. Most were moved to other city housing projects or to government-subsidized residences. But a small group of households was left behind without a place to move.
The families were living in boarded-up complexes the city had let go to ruin, an eerie environment that Calhoun said was akin to living in a "ghost town."
The water, which ran only hot in some units and only cold in others, gushed out brown and rusty in almost every apartment. Rats infested the grounds, partly because the city had failed to pick up the trash. Some families complained their phone lines had been cut. With few police and large numbers of the outdoor lights vandalized or taken by city crews, vagrants routinely broke into many of the apartments. A few residents armed themselves with bats and knives to ward off the thieves.
An article in The Sun this month on their plight prompted criticism of the housing authority. A high-ranking official from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in charge of the more than $40 million in federal grants being given to the city to redo the two developments, said families should not have been allowed to live in such conditions. Mayor Martin O'Malley expressed outrage, as did a number of local housing experts and former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, now state comptroller.
The housing authority is responsible for handling the needs of the residents being moved, according to federal laws and guidelines dealing with the relocation. Some residents and housing experts say the agency bungled the job, complaining that the housing authority failed to plan adequately and did not provide enough guidance to residents, many who were moving for the first time.
During the past week, the city stepped up its efforts to help the families. Teams of social workers and police officers were sent to offer assistance. Housing officials first said it would take a month to find everyone a home, but the city accomplished the task within a week.
Housing officials defended their actions last week, saying that earlier in the year they had offered to move each of the families but were rebuffed. A number of families denied the agency's claims that offers were made or said they turned the offers down because they were being asked to move to dangerous areas.
'A long haul'
"It's been a long haul," said Calhoun, who moved to Broadway Homes several years ago and sought to remain near Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she receives treatment for an illness. "We had to wait for a while, but now you can see, it was worth it."
She will share her new home in East Baltimore with seven of her children and grandchildren. The subsidized rowhouse is clean and newly renovated, with linoleum floors, four bedrooms and a living room that dwarfs the family's tiny couch.
Calhoun, saying she was more relaxed than she has been in weeks, imagined it with a bigger couch, enough beds for the kids, a table or two, maybe a barbecue grill out back.
"I like to cook for others," she said, admiring the concrete patio and pointing at the view of a quiet, well-kept neighborhood. "We'll do some grilling here, that's for sure."