Cummings urges halt to razing of homes

The Baltimore Sun

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called yesterday for a moratorium on the demolition of public housing in Baltimore until "demonstrable progress" is made in constructing homes for low-income residents.

In a letter to city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, the Democratic congressman said he is "gravely concerned" about plans to demolish housing at 15 sites in Baltimore before redevelopment plans are complete. The demolition is being paid for with money from the city's affordable housing fund.

"I think Mr. Graziano needs to stop and pause," Cummings told The Sun yesterday. "I don't want this to be a bulldozer going through the city, leaving a trail of dust with the people standing on the sidelines with no place to go."

Cummings said he will meet with Graziano early next week to discuss redevelopment and the use of the $59 million affordable housing fund, which includes contributions from the federal government.

Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said yesterday that she will meet with the City Council president to arrange a hearing on how the affordable housing fund is being spent. She said she supports Cummings' call for a moratorium.

"If we use up all the money for demolition and a developer comes along that truly wants to do affordable housing and we're out of money, then what?" Holton asked. She said she wants assurances that redevelopment will occur on demolition sites and that the new development will include low-income housing.

Cummings wrote his letter in response to an article yesterday in The Sun that detailed how a majority of the affordable housing fund was going toward demolition at 15 sites. The Housing Authority does not have plans for redevelopment at all of the sites. Five of the sites to be demolished are public housing complexes; the others are "portions of neighborhoods that have been identified as blighted," Graziano said.

In a statement accompanying his letter, Cummings said: "Baltimore City is facing a serious housing crisis that most adversely affects low-income citizens. Before any more funds are spent on a short-term demolition plan, there must be a comprehensive strategy in place to develop quality, affordable housing in Baltimore."

Graziano said the city Housing Authority has firm plans for 3,700 new units in mixed-income communities. Nearly half of the units would be affordable or low-income housing, he said. He said high-density public housing is being eliminated across the country, and he called Baltimore a leading example.

"The intent ought to be to strengthen communities in this city, to create opportunities in mixed-income housing communities," Graziano said in an interview yesterday. "And that's what we're looking at, that's what we're doing."

Later, after Cummings sent his letter, a spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon advised Graziano that he should not speak with The Sun.

Housing advocates say they're concerned about the demolition because they believe the new developments won't have as many low-income units as those they are replacing.

"You've got a game where you're never going to catch up," said Gregory L. Countess, an attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland, which represents tenants. "You've got this affordable housing trust fund that was promised to be used to increase the supply of housing instead being used to demolish housing."

To expand the housing inventory, advocates say, the Housing Authority should look beyond development at existing public housing sites to other properties that could be developed, or to purchasing apartment complexes that could become mixed-income communities.

In his letter, Cummings asked that the Housing Authority submit by Nov. 15 a report on how the affordable housing fund is being spent. He requested that the report be made public.

"As you know, the affordable housing fund includes federal funds," Cummings wrote. "At a time when these federal funds are being slashed by record amounts, it is unacceptable that they would be allocated on a short-term demolition project that would only exacerbate the lack of affordable housing in Baltimore City."

The City Council passed legislation two years ago to create the $59 million affordable housing fund. The legislation says the money should be used for 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.

Cummings said he expects the fund to be used for all three purposes, not just one of them.

"And if it's not," he said, "we need to know why not, and I hope the City Council would ask the question: How can it make sure the law is enforced?"

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