Public housing tenants promised relief by city


The story at Somerset Homes, Baltimore's oldest public housing project, is simple: The old guard and the Tenant Council got mad.

Last week, the residents of this East Baltimore complex took city housing officials to task for ignoring their long-standing complaints. Maintenance was lax and inadequate, they said, apartments needed repair, and drug dealing was virtually unchallenged.

Officials from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City did not disagree. They readily acknowledged the problems at Somerset and vowed a rapid response. More than $1 million is in the pipeline to fund needed repairs.

"I'm really rejoicing that this is happening," said Mary C. Disharoom, 61, the Tenant Council vice president.

Iris Bradford, Tenant Council president and Disharoom's comrade-in-arms, agreed, and said, "But you know, it's really a shame that things had to escalate the way they did."

At a meeting Thursday night, Reginald Scriber, ombudsman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, told the tenants no one could deny that there were "a tremendous amount of problems at this development."

"These things didn't start overnight and they will not be corrected overnight," Scriber said. "We will do all we can, as much as we can, as fast as we can."

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, whom the tenants contacted after a sewage backup at the complex last month, also attended the meeting. He signed a memorandum of understanding the tenants wrote seeking support of their "right to safe, sanitary and structurally sound housing."

"I'm very disappointed that the housing tenants have made these calls to the housing authority and nothing was done," said Young, an East Baltimore Democrat. "I'm going to hold the housing department to the fire. They're going to have to make some improvements."

With help from Making Connections, an Annie E. Casey Foundation project aimed at helping the disadvantaged, the tenants surveyed the complex. They found sewage problems, flooding, unreliable heating and broken appliances in at least one-third of the 93 homes they checked. Nearly 80 percent of the homes had structural damage and severe plumbing leaks.

"These are not recent complaints. These things have been going on for years," said Disharoom, who has lived at Somerset for seven years.

John Wesley, spokesman for HABC, said the department has $700,000 to replace Somerset's electrical system. Another $184,000 will be used to fix sump pumps and storm drains that have been a constant source of complaints.

"This is something that we are working on now," Wesley said.

The department also is expected to spend $500,000 renovating vacant units.

Opened in November 1943, Somerset has 276 units spread through 11 three-story buildings. Plots that should have grass are instead squares of hard-packed dirt. Here and there, an empty apartment stands open.

The maintenance men assigned to the complex also take care of the nearby 19-story senior citizens apartment building on Aisquith Street and dozens of units at Somerset extension, a block east at Monument and Caroline streets. Three recent hires will join the maintenance staff, Wesley said.

The current push at Somerset began last summer with conversations about shared complaints between Disharoom and Bradford, both of whom live in the 1200 block of Young Court. Then they ran for election to the Tenant Council.

But before the election, they and other tenants campaigned to have the community center opened to residents. Success came with help from Samuel B. Little, the housing agency's associate director of resident services, they said. Now the shouts and laughter of children doing homework or sitting with volunteers from Baltimore Clayworks echo off the center's walls.

"If you don't know who to call, or who to contact, you're in trouble," said Bradford, a 16-year resident.

Attacking Somerset's crime problem will be the authority's first job, Scriber said. Three killings and at least one serious shooting have occurred there since August. And a police officer was shot at Somerset extension in March last year while arresting a drug suspect.

Disharoom said she has had to tape over the community center's windows to keep children from watching the open drug dealing that goes on outside.

"Some [children] would say, 'There goes your mother,' or, 'I saw your father,'" she said. "Then you have to break up a fight."

Even with the recent successes, many tenants are wary of putting too much faith in the housing agency's promises. Deborah Flournoy recalled a similar burst of activity four years ago, after she complained to then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The basements haven't been cleaned since, she said.

"I'll just wait and see, because I done heard all this before," said Flournoy, 61, who has lived at Somerset about 12 years. "When I see them up here working, then I'll cheer."

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