Baltimore public housing plan needs scrutiny, oversight

The $27 million renovation and reopening of the city's Allendale public apartment complex was described as "hallelujah" moment by Carol Payne, the Director of the Baltimore Region for the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. But a hallelujah moment for whom? Should public housing residents and applicants really be praising a program that turns publicly held assets over to private entities with practically no accountability to the low-income seniors and people with disabilities who will reside in these units?

The renovation of the Allendale was made possible by a new federal program — Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) — that permits public housing authorities (PHAs) to sell public housing properties to private owners in order to leverage the properties to finance much needed capital improvements in these properties. The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) was one of the first PHAs in the country to apply, and will convert over 4,000 of its public housing units under RAD by the end of 2018, meaning that these properties will become privately owned, federally subsidized housing.

The intent of RAD in Baltimore City is to raise private capital for the public benefit of low-income seniors and persons with disabilities. HABC has consistently maintained that under RAD these properties will be operated "just like public housing" and tenants will not lose the rights they had under public housing. The actions of RAD owners must be scrutinized to ensure that these publicly entrusted assets continue to provide quality affordable housing and to ensure HABC is held accountable for its commitment to preserving tenants' rights.

Disability Rights Maryland, the Legal Aid Bureau, the Resident Advisory Board of HABC and other affordable housing advocates have been pushing for more accountability and transparency under RAD since the day HABC announced its plans to sell its buildings. While significant rights were guaranteed to residents and applicants on paper, much work still needs to be done to ensure that RAD converted properties operate in the public interest, maintaining safe, decent, affordable and accessible housing for Baltimore residents.

For example, what benefit comes from using state funds and federal tax credits to create new units at Wyman House, another RAD building, which rent for nearly $1,000 per month? What benefit is there for public housing residents at J. Van Story Branch Apartments, another RAD building, when public funds are used for the construction of a new freight elevator that results in the demolition of 18 deeply affordable housing units? What public benefit is there for maintaining vacancies as high as 35 percent in RAD properties while the wait-list for these same units sits at over 5,000 and climbs daily? What public benefit is there in terminating extremely low-income seniors and persons with disabilities from their housing without affording them the rights and benefits they enjoyed as public housing residents?

These are the hard questions we should ask of our newly elected leaders in Baltimore City, the new owners of these RAD properties, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, which awards tax credits and other funding, as well as of HABC, which has an important role in ensuring that RAD owners fulfill HABC's promise that RAD will be just like public housing.

Our concerns about the lack of transparency and accountability are no canard. As thoroughly documented in the recent Frontline/NPR investigation, "Poverty, Politics and Profit," the Low-income Housing Tax Credit program, which is the primary mechanism for financing the renovations in Baltimore's public housing under RAD, has come under scrutiny for creating fewer units and costing tax-payers more money as it has grown and expanded over time.

More oversight is necessary to ensure that the choices made by new RAD owners benefit the public interest. In other jurisdictions, such as San Francisco, locally appointed RAD boards oversee the operation and properties to ensure their compliance not only with the RAD statute but locally adopted protections for residents in RAD properties.

Attorneys at Disability Rights Maryland and Legal Aid Bureau cannot possibly represent all 4,000 RAD residents, and the lack of uniform management policies and practices makes it increasingly difficult to assure across-the-board changes in policies and practices in RAD buildings. Baltimore's leaders must respond to this call for more accountability by taking the best practices of other jurisdictions and appointing a body to oversee the implementation and operation of these RAD properties to ensure the continue to benefit the public.

The renovation and re-opening was indeed a moment. It was a moment when additional vigilance of these newly renovated privately owned affordable housing became necessary to ensure the public interest in housing low-income seniors and persons with disabilities is not sacrificed for private benefit.

David Prater is an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, formerly Maryland Disability Law Center. His email is davidp@disabilityrightsmd.org.

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