Uncertain future for landmark hotel


After an evening of strolling through Baltimore's genteel Mount Vernon neighborhood, F. Scott Fitzgerald returned to one of the city's most elegant hotels to write what would turn out to be a famous line about the city.

"I belong here, where everything is civilized and gay and rotted and polite," Fitzgerald wrote on Stafford Hotel stationery Sept. 23, 1935.

Sixty-five years later, Stafford Towers, 716 Washington Place, is a low-income housing project from which prostitution and drug dealing is spreading rot to the city's cultural center, according to leaders of this neighborhood anchored by the Walters Art Gallery, Peabody Institute and Washington Monument.

Neighborhood groups have been anything but polite in demanding that the landlord - AIMCO of Denver, the nation's largest owner of apartments, with $1.7 billion in annual rent collections - sell the Stafford to somebody who will clean it up and turn it into middle-class housing.

AIMCO put the building up for sale this summer, and offers are due today. But bids turned in by the end of the week will likely be respected, according to a source familiar with the proposed sale.

"The Mount Vernon community is fighting for its very survival," Steve Johnson, president of the Mt. Vernon/Belvedere Improvement Association, wrote to AIMCO this year. "The list of illegal activities at the Stafford includes, but is not limited to, arson, prolific and ongoing drug activity, prostitution, aggressive panhandling of business patrons, harassment of restaurant patrons, urination and defecation in the park and nearby environs ... and throwing trash and bottles at passing automobiles."

At stake is an 11-story, 106-year-old landmark with an ornately carved arch over its entrance that was once a honeymoon hotel for the rich. Fitzgerald stayed in the hotel in the 1930s while his wife, Zelda, was being treated for mental illness at the Johns Hopkins Phipps Clinic.

The Stafford houses 96 tenants who receive subsidized rents through a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development program called project-based Section 8.

Some of the residents are low-income women with young children, older people and former drug addicts who don't know where they'd go if a new owner raises the rent. HUD says their fears of being displaced are groundless because whoever buys the building will be required to maintain it for low-income people.

"There are a lot of people here who can't afford to live anywhere else," said Mina Wright, acting president of the Stafford Towers Tenants Association.

In 1970, the building's owners converted it from a hotel to a HUD-funded apartment complex that served primarily elderly and disabled people.

During the late 1980s, complaints about crime began to grow at the same time HUD ruled that former drug addicts and recovering alcoholics could be considered "disabled" residents.

A complication in the possible sale of the building is the roughly $2.5 million in mortgages and loans the owners owe to HUD.

Among the debts is $420,000 the former owner borrowed from HUD in 1992 to make repairs to the building, including fixing the roof. That owner signed an agreement to provide affordable housing through the year 2016, and that requirement remains even after a sale, said Harold Young, state HUD coordinator.

Patrick Foye, a spokesman for AIMCO, said the company has been doing everything it can to keep the building clean and orderly.

"We do have security officers, and we are doing our part with local community groups to try to clean up the area," Foye said.

The regional property manager for AIMCO, G. Anne Gallagher, wrote this year to HUD that neighborhood complaints about the Stafford were "outrageous" and "baseless."

"We have no known criminals living at Stafford," she wrote, according to HUD files reviewed by The Sun. "We started performing our own criminal background checks last April [in 1999]."

On May 4 this year, two months after Gallagher wrote the letter, police arrested Stafford tenant Lavonda Engram, a 21-year-old self-described "stripper and prostitute," and charged her with running a prostitution business out of her eighth-floor apartment, according to police reports.

Police said Engram directed girls ages 14, 15 and 17 to wear red leatherette outfits and other costumes, and have sex with Engram's clients. Engram got cash from the johns. The girls got tips, drugs and a place to stay, according to police. The case is pending.

If AIMCO had checked courthouse records, it would have found that Engram and her roommate Earl Ferebee, 23, had arrest records. Engram's record includes charges but no convictions for armed robbery, assault and attempted murder.

Ferebee is a twice-convicted cocaine and heroin dealer who has carried a gun, according to police and court records.

At least nine other current or former Stafford residents have been charged with possession of crack cocaine, robbing people walking on nearby Charles Street, assaulting fellow residents of the building, theft, and violation of probation, according to police and court records.

City records list 559 calls to police concerning 716 Washington Place from July 1, 1998, through July 1, 2000. That's an average of one police call every three of four days. The number includes 82 reports of assault, 106 of disorderly people, seven of narcotics violations, eight of fires, and 38 of domestic disturbances, according to police records.

"This is outrageous, and it speaks to poor performance by the owner or the management company," said Matt Franklin, deputy chief of staff for HUD in Washington.

Police Sgt. Gary Gentile said investigations into problems at the Stafford are continuing.

Zack Germroth, spokesman for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said the Stafford is a HUD issue because its funding goes from the government to the landlord.

One resident of the building is Lorenzo Cooper, a 23-year-old former prostitute, drug user and homeless man who said he was kicked out of his grandparents' home in East Baltimore because he is gay. Cooper pays $25 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. He said the affordable housing has helped him clean up his life. He's studying to be a drug addiction counselor at Baltimore City Community College.

But Cooper said he sometimes doesn't feel safe inside his building, which he said has improved in recent months but remains a center for prostitution.

"The answer is to weed out the bad seeds and evict them instead of punishing everybody by throwing us all out," Cooper said.

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