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Tenants call Bel-Park Tower unsafe, unsavory, “worst it’s ever been”

Housing officials pledge changes after getting an earful from elderly tenants who say security has broken down at their city-run building

Bel-Park charles buster

Bel-Park used to be a safer place, said Charles Buster, citing discontinued programs like the volunteer tenants’ patrol he once supervised.

Photo by: Fern Shen

On top of the horror stories they told about strangers in their building, fellow tenants being robbed and threatening graffiti on the walls, the elderly residents of city-run Bel-Park Tower apartments had another message Wednesday:

It didn’t always used to be this way, they told the assembled group of city police officers, state lawmakers and top Baltimore Housing officials, including Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

“This is the worst it’s ever been. We used to have call buttons. If we could go back to [using] them, it would help,” said Patricia “Miss Pat” McEachern, one of about 75 residents who came to a meeting organized by Del. Jill P. Carter in the wake of a residents’ picket outside the Housing Authority of Baltimore City’s downtown headquarters last month.

“We can’t even sit outside without smelling urine. People who don’t live here are urinating outside,” said McEachearn, who has lived at the subsidized Northwest Baltimore apartment building for eight years.

Bel Park Tower tenants at a Wednesday meeting with Baltimore Housing officials and others to air complaints about security. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Bel Park Tower tenants at a Wednesday meeting with Baltimore Housing officials and others to air complaints about security. (Photo by Fern Shen)

An even more effective strategy, some said, was a “Tenants on Patrol” program, in which residents trained by the Housing Authority helped to keep their buildings secure.

“We used to have volunteers. . . It was six or seven people with walkie-talkies,” said Charles Buster, 79, a former president of the Residents’ Council. “We checked every floor.”

“As it is now, nobody knows nobody,” he said. Strangers are moving “from floor to floor, they’re threatening people, they’ve been robbing people in the parking lot.”

“Hallelujah!”

Addressing the tenants, many of whom entered the room on motorized wheelchairs, Graziano said he engaged his agency “at the the highest level” when he heard about the problems at Bel-Park.

“This is an issue we all take very seriously,” he said, noting that he had alerted Sean Buchanan (associate director of public housing), Kimberly Washington (chief of staff), Reginald Scriber (deputy commissioner of community service), Kevin J. White (inspector general) and Anthony Scott (deputy executive director), all of whom were at the meeting.

(Also present were delegates Nathaniel T. Oaks and Samuel I “Sandy” Rosenberg.)

Graziano and his deputies promised that HABC would increase staff by the end of the week, step up security measures within “a couple of weeks” and meet again with tenants on July 10 at 1 p.m.

He said his agency had already taken action to increase security in Bel-Park but alluded to the challenge posed by criminal activity in the neighborhood (“clearly this building doesn’t sit in isolation”) and implied that the police could be doing more to help out (“our residents need police security and support as much as any other residents.”)

Paul Graziano, with Reggie Scriber to his right and Anthony Scott to his left. Standing (l to r) Jill carter, Sandy Rosenberg and Nat Oaks. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Paul Graziano, with Reggie Scriber to his right and Anthony Scott to his left. Standing (l to r) Jill carter, Sandy Rosenberg and Nat Oaks. (Photo by Fern Shen)

He addressed several specific issues the residents raised, including their main one: that strangers were being permitted to get past the front desk, enter the elevators and wander freely in the building. “Nobody should be going in unless the resident goes down and escorts that person upstairs,” he said.

As for the complaint by several residents that someone with a master key had been going into their apartments, using the bathroom and taking things, Graziano said there had to be a master key for all the units in the building “for emergency reasons.”

But if the key is “not in the proper hands. . . if we have to change the locks, we will,” he said, prompting one woman in the audience to roll her eyes and murmur, “Hallelujah.”

As for the tenants on patrol program, he said it’s an idea “we definitely would like to take a look at.”

“Bureaucratic Apathy”

Carter said she is hopeful the situation will improve but finds the severity of the problem and the official response so far “troubling.”

“These things should have already been in place. There appears to be some kind of bureaucratic apathy there,” she said, in a phone interview with The Brew. “These are certainly not new issues and the Housing Authority seems well aware of them. They clearly need to make some serious changes in the process of admitting people into the building.”

“It’s abominable that seniors are forced to live in fear and feel like prisoners,” Carter said. She noted that for the recent July 4th barbecue, Tenants Advisory Board delegate Mary Lawson had to grill the food and bring it inside to residents because security concerns still make it impossible for residents to gather  for the events outside.

Del. Jill Carter listens to a Bel-Park Tower tenant. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Del. Jill Carter listens to a Bel-Park Tower tenant. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Residents at other Baltimore-area senior communities like Charlestown in Catonsville don’t have to live that way, she said, “would you want your mother or grandfather to live like that? Of course not!”

Graziano may have acknowledged the possibility of reviving the tenants patrol program in the meeting, but in earlier meetings with HABC, Carter said, she was told there wasn’t enough money for it.

The idea that Housing officials are dragging their feet “makes me think there’s a real problem of priorities at the top,” Carter said, “and if you ask whose responsibility it is ultimately to fix it, it rests with the mayor.”

Police: Tenants Need to Report Problems

The degree to which lawyers and police have a role in the Bel-Park problem was made clear by “RESIDENT ALERT” fliers (taped to the front door and distributed to tenants) with the picture a woman’s  face shown. “The person in the picture has been barred from Bel-Park Tower,” it reads in part. “Any resident who assists her in entering the building under any circumstance will run the risk of being evicted.”

“That lady! She is the ringleader! Her and her boyfriend!” a man in a wheelchair said during the meeting, prompting Graziano to advise him to make such allegations privately to his staff.

Security problems at  city-run Bel-Park Tower apartments attracted top city Housing officials this week. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Security problems at city-run Bel-Park Tower apartments attracted top city Housing officials this week. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Another tenant, Sharon Jones, complained about graffiti in the building’s elevator that remained there for days, a message that her grandson saw when visiting her “and he told me it scared him.”

“Miss ____ will die in 5 days,” the scrawled message said, naming Bel-Park’s housing manager.

Why, one man asked, was HBAC’s housing police force dismantled?

It happened as part of a federal mandate 10 years ago when Martin O’Malley was mayor,” Graziano replied, saying they were told to turn to local police officers.

Speaking for the Baltimore City Police department, Capt. Marc Partee warned tenants that they will need to carry identification with them from now on.

“If you’re sitting outside and you don’t have your ID, we’re going to write you a citation for trespassing,” he said. “I’m going to be the hammer.” He chided them for not reporting and said after reviewing recent records he didn’t find “any calls  for robberies from this area.”

“If you don’t call, I don’t know,” he said. Inspector General White echoed the sentiment: “One issue is, people are afraid to pick up the phone, ” he said, reminding the tenants of the tip line: 410-396-0111.

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  • Brian Alston

    Want to #Occupy something? #OccupyBelParkTower

  • Lizzie 58

    Commissioner Graziano shows up with five senior-level employees, plus Police Captain Partee, but no changes have been implemented. They are waiting for what to happen at Bel Park Tower? We will not accept that the Mayor, the Housing Commissioner, and the Police Commissioner do not have emergency funds or other resources to rotate and mobilize personnel in order to stabilize this situation. Can we imagine Commissioner Graziano and Commissioner Batt telling affluent city residents that they cannot be safe in their own homes because the buildings do not sit in isolation from the neighborhood.

  • Observe and report

    The problem at Bell-Park Towers is that 99% of the so called “undesirable” people going in are entering with residents or are going to visit residents of the apartment complex. Is up to the residents themselves to abide by the rules and the administration to enforce them instead of putting the blame on someone else.

    • Lizzie 58

      People, especially senior citizens, call the police if they feel safe doing so. As you have suggested, the riffraff here is probably certain residents, probably not senior citizens, and a certain number of visitors. The problem seems to be that the Housing Authority employees are as frightened of the riffraff as the seniors and have loss control. While the seniors have a reason to be frightened, the Housing Authority does not. It is time to change the building management, increase the number of employees to get back control of the building and address problems with security, ,and work out better plans and coordination with the police.

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