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Mayoral candidates address community development, housing

The four Democratic candidates for mayor on stage at the Saints Philip and James Catholic Church basement Saturday afternoon could agree on a few things: a desperate need for more affordable housing in the city, for the revitalization of the most neglected neighborhoods and the demolition of 31,000 vacant homes.

But the participants in the forum, sponsored by the Community Development Network of Maryland and 10 other groups, presented the crowd with different paths to addressing those concerns.

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State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh said she would separate Baltimore Housing from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, give incentives to developers to create mixed income housing and penalize owners of vacant properties.

City Councilman Carl Stokes said he would focus first on what he calls neighborhoods on the cusp — not the best and not the worst. He would require developers of new housing with more than 20 units to devote 15 percent of them to affordable housing. He would hold more meetings with residents and community groups to get their input on improving their neighborhoods.

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Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said she would better enforce laws such as the inclusionary housing law, that was intended to make developers reserve a portion of new housing projects for the needy. She would create a rating system to evaluate how well developers address community concerns.

Elizabeth Embry said she would first help each neighborhood come up with a revitalization plan and then better use funds from the 21st Century School Building Plan to help rebuild communities.

"The city is doing a very poor job of using that money," she said.

The candidates invited were among the highest-polling running in the Democratic mayoral primary April 26. Councilman Nick Mosby said he had a scheduling conflict. It was not clear why businessman David Warnock did not attend.

Audience members asked if tax increment financing — in effect, a reduction in property taxes — could hurt efforts to create more affordable housing.

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank's private development firm has asked the city for $535 million in tax increment financing to help pay for roads, parks and utilities in his proposed Port Covington development.

None of the candidates mentioned the project by name but expressed concern in varying degrees about whether the financing tool was only going to the wealthy and not used for the intended purpose of improving blighted neighborhoods.

"When we are using them and they are bringing no benefit to the weakest of our neighborhoods and communities, it should not be used at all," Stokes said.

Embry asked why the Baltimore Development Corp. didn't have a third party review Under Armour's proposal before approving it. She said she wanted more "pushback to evaluate whether it makes sense."

Some also questioned the leadership of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano, who has come under fire for poor conditions in the city's public housing.

At a separate event a few hours later, public housing tenants and other community members held a mock tribunal to try Graziano in absentia.

They accused him of violating the human rights of public housing residents by denying them decent housing. Residents described conditions that included black mold, regular floods in elevators, rodents and roaches.

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Vitina Thomas approached the podium walking with a pink cane.

"I'm here to tell the truth," she said.

The 50-year-old said she has lived in public housing for 30 years, but a recent move to Gilmor Homes has been her worst experience yet. She said she is afraid of the rats in the wall, and drug dealers outside her door.

"I barely come out my front door," she said. "I'm a prisoner in my own home."

Lenora Knowles, who works with Baltimore Peoples Power, one of the groups that sponsored the tribunal, said she wanted to give the housing residents more say in their plight.

The tribunal found Graziano guilty. Knowles said it would be followed by an action plan to address the problems of public housing.

"Too many people are living in deplorable conditions," she said.

Graziano, who did not attend the tribunal, said afterward that the housing authority has made tremendous strides in improving housing for tenants.

In October, he said, the authority had more than 4,000 work orders more than 30 days old. On Friday, he said, the number was down to 93.

He said there are plans to replace appliances, paint units and create a system to allow residents to report problems online. If residents have concerns, he said, they need to report them to their property management office.

"We took the problems seriously, and we haven taken dramatic steps to improve things," he said.

Some at the mayoral forum said they left feeling as if they better understood the position of the candidates.

Attorney Tom Cotten said he has a favorite candidate but thought he could get a better feel for all of them by hearing them in person rather than just reading position papers. He said the discussion was insightful.

"The good thing is I am walking away thinking that any of them could do the job," he said.

But Vanessa Borotz didn't think any of the candidates gave the best plan for ending homelessness.

"I was hoping this would help me decide," she said. "But I still don't know."

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