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City razing homes, not building them

The Baltimore Sun

An affordable housing fund that was created two years ago to provide homes for the poor and the working class in Baltimore is instead being used to demolish old public housing units before there are firm plans to replace them.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City is using a "significant majority" of the $59 million fund to tear down 15 public housing sites across the city, said Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. He defended using the money to demolish more than 1,500 housing units, saying the sites are being prepared for redevelopment.

But critics say that the new housing is years away, if it materializes at all, and that the loss of housing units is inexcusable when 20,000 households are on a city waiting list for housing and specific redevelopment plans are lacking.

For instance, the Housing Authority is using $4 million from the affordable housing fund to demolish the 257-unit Somerset Courts in East Baltimore. But there is no plan for what will eventually replace it. This week, the authority held its first planning meeting on the project, beginning a process that will take years.

"If we're doing demolition on properties where the city doesn't have a plan for it, it's almost like it's a waste of the money," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "For us to demolish a property for $2 million or $3 million, and it sits there for a couple of years while we're trying to figure out what to do, it defeats the purpose of why we created the trust fund in the first place."

The fund was created in 2005 as part of a deal struck by then-Mayor Martin O'Malley and then-City Council President Sheila Dixon to win support for a city-owned hotel adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center. Several council members, including Harris and Helen L. Holton, voted for the hotel only after they were assured of the $59 million housing fund.

They say they expected the money to be used to help people buy homes, to renovate housing and to prepare sites for development of new housing. They didn't expect properties to be razed without plans to rebuild.

"We have a lot of things that need to be demolished, but that affordable housing trust fund was not designed just to clear sites for what might be possible," Holton said. "That fund was created to support and augment affordable housing through a planned process."

Legislation that created the fund says it should be used for essentially three purposes:

Acquisition and demolition of property.

"Planning, preservation, rehabilitation and development of economically diverse housing in city neighborhoods."

Rental payment and home purchase assistance for eligible households.

Graziano could not say how much of the $59 million is going toward demolition, but he acknowledged that it will be a majority of the fund. For instance, $7 million is going to demolition of the 900-unit O'Donnell Heights project in Southeast Baltimore; $8 million for demolition and some acquisition at Johnston Square; and $13.5 million for demolition and acquisition at the Uplands site in Southwest Baltimore.

Holton said she will consider calling a City Council hearing on how the fund is being spent.

"I would hate to see the fund consumed with just demolition and no plan for redevelopment," she said.

But the Housing Authority does not have plans for what will come after demolition at all 15 sites, Graziano said.

"There will be plans for all of them eventually," he said. The first task is to eliminate blighted, abandoned properties that are a drain on neighborhoods, he said. Planning will come after that.

"There's no reason to leave blighted and largely, if not totally, vacant housing sitting there," Graziano said. "So, if we can do demolition work in advance, we have eliminated blight and made a site ready for rapid redevelopment once we have adopted a plan and selected a developer."

At six of the sites, plans are in place that call for the construction of 3,700 new mixed-income housing units. Nearly half of the units would be affordable or low-income housing.

The Housing Authority is taking $4 million from the fund to tear down Somerset, a complex of three-story, red-brick buildings in East Baltimore that was built in 1944. Only about 20 families remain in the project's 257 units. Almost all of the windows have been filled with gray cinder- blocks, and the courtyards are barren and strewn with trash.

Iris Bradford, who has lived at Somerset Courts for 23 years and is president of the tenants council, says that if the project must come down, she wants assurances that it will be replaced with decent low-income housing. She is not sure that will happen, even after a meeting with Housing Authority officials.

"What was proposed to me was, 10 percent would be low-income," she said. "Ten percent? That's nothing. At least give me 25."

In the meantime, she's looking for a new place to live. She must be out by the end of October.

"I'm so depressed some days," she said. "I'm in limbo."

Housing advocates express concern about the relocation assistance provided to families being forced out of their homes - aid that is scarce and inadequate, they say - as well as how much of the new development will be set aside for low-income residents.

"The idea of the fund, as I understand it, is to create affordable housing in strong, stable neighborhoods, and demolition can be a piece of that," said Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "But it has to be demolition that leads to new, stronger neighborhoods with affordable housing.

"To the extent that it's demolition without the follow-on plan, then I think it's missing the point."

City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who supported the convention center hotel deal, said demolition is an appropriate use of the affordable housing money.

"One of the things we know is that communities don't want to live with blight," she said. "And one of the pathways to creating affordable housing is razing vacant houses to create new and sustainable work force housing."

One of the advocates for the creation of the fund was BUILD, a nonprofit group that organizes communities. A BUILD organizer, Rob English, said the fund is being used as the group expected. He said developers are loath to spend money preparing sites for projects, so demolition is an acceptable use for the affordable housing fund.

"That was the first piece of the puzzle," English said. "The second piece is to create a plan to rebuild on that land. And we trust the city to do just that."

He said eliminating blight is a proper use of the money.

"In Cherry Hill, that public housing has been abandoned for years and is a wasteland, a breeding ground of decay," he said. "If that land sits for two years as the community develops a plan, that's better than this decaying mess that's been there for years."

Demolition was completed this year on 113 units at Cherry Hill Homes, using $1.4 million from the affordable housing fund. At a ceremony to kick off the demolition, Graziano called it "part of a citywide blight elimination effort." But there are not yet plans to rebuild there.

In the city's southwest area, all residents have moved out of the Westport Homes Extension, a complex of 232 units in 33 buildings. The project is now surrounded by a high metal fence, and on a recent afternoon a Baltimore police cruiser was posted at the entrance.

Nearby, on Norfolk Street, Ether Hill, 79, was sitting on the porch of the home he shares with his daughter.

"To me, it's almost ridiculous," he said of the plan to spend $1.5 million tearing down the development.

Housing Authority documents show the money would come from the affordable housing fund, but Graziano said he believes it is coming from other sources.

Hill can't understand why they're coming down at all.

"With all the homeless people in this city - those are homes there," he said. "I would find it more feasible to renovate them and rent them out. Do something with it."

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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