Federal officials oppose the proposed conversion of a crime-troubled public housing high-rise in the heart of Baltimore's cultural district into market-rate housing that Mount Vernon neighborhood leaders believe would help revive the struggling community.
Mayor Martin O'Malley urged U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials yesterday to be more flexible and allow the conversion of Stafford Towers at 716 Washington Place, a landmark, 106-year-old former hotel that has 96 residents in subsidized apartments.
AIMCO of Denver, owners of the building, accepted bids from potential buyers yesterday. But they found that the interested parties wanted to convert the building into nonsubsidized apartments. Balking any such deal is a HUD requirement that whoever buys the building must keep it as low-income housing through 2016, according to sources close to the proposed sale.
Despite repeated assurances by the building's owners that they would evict troublesome tenants, police and court records show that prostitution and drug dealing continue to be a problem at the Stafford.
Community leaders complain that this crime is driving out other Mount Vernon residents and harming efforts to revitalize Charles Street.
City records list 559 calls to police about the Stafford from July 1, 1998, to July 1, 2000, including 82 reports of assault, 106 of disorderly people, seven of narcotics violations, eight of fires and 38 of domestic disturbances.
Two months after the landlord assured HUD that it had cracked down on the activities, police in May arrested a Stafford resident for running a prostitution business out of her apartment employing teen-age girls as young as 14.
O'Malley said he "absolutely" is urging HUD to allow the building to switch from subsidized to market-rate housing.
"The cultural district of Mount Vernon is one of the cultural gems of this city, and people from other cities and countries come here to see it," O'Malley said. "There are few places as beautiful to the eye or as historically valuable, and I'd like to see that building market rate."
Built in 1896 as a luxury honeymoon hotel near the Washington Monument on Mount Vernon Square, it provided a residence for F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1935 when the author was in the city while his wife, Zelda, was being treated for mental illness at the Johns Hopkins Phipps Clinic.
In 1970, the owners of the 11-story building converted it to federally subsidized housing that served primarily the elderly and disabled. Complaints about crime in the building rose in the late 1980s, when HUD ruled that "disabled" residents could include former drug addicts and alcoholics.
Matt Franklin, deputy chief of staff for HUD in Washington, said the solution to the crime problems in the Stafford is better management and screening of the tenants. The agency does not support converting the building to market-rate housing, which would require the low-income tenants to move.
"We have a great relationship with Mayor O'Malley, and I think the mayor would agree that the problem is crime and not the income of the residents," said Franklin. "We are committed to making sure that the management runs the building well and performs thorough criminal checks of its residents."
Patricia C. Payne, the city's commissioner of housing and community development, said the city is talking to HUD officials to explore the possibility of HUD granting a waiver that would allow the Stafford to be converted to low-income elderly housing or market-rate housing.
The issue is complex, because the previous owners of the building received a $420,000 loan from HUD in 1992 to repair the building and fix up the roof. One requirement of the loan was that the owners sign an agreement with HUD that would keep the building for low-income residents through 2016.