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Housing advocates seek details about plan to privatize public housing

Tenant rights, screening of applicants and loss of public housing units remain unanswered

Above: Welcome to battered Bel-Park Tower in Park Heights, one of 22 public housing units the Housing Authority of Baltimore City wants to unload.

Lawyers for three low-income advocacy groups have sent 34 questions to Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano about the city’s plans to sell off a large swath of Baltimore’s public housing projects.

“The devil is in the details,” said Karen E. Wabeke, a staff attorney for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, about the proposed conversion of 4,000 of the city’s nearly 11,000 public housing units to private ownership.

Wabeke said her group is worried that the promised renovation of the projects by developers may reduce the number of low-income units in the city and establish unrealistically high standards for future residents.

While the program is touted as a way to fund badly-needed capital improvements through private dollars, “significant questions remain regarding tenants’ rights, admissions and selection criteria for applicants, loss of units and the long-term affordability of converted properties,” says the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Brew.

Secretive Process

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) has already selected 22 housing projects – and chosen 11 developers – to be part of the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program established by Congress.

The conversion plan was a tightly-guarded secret by the Rawlings-Blake administration until The Brew last week broke the news that the program was moving rapidly forward.

Since then, tenants as well as employees at the housing authority – who face layoffs – have been clamoring for answers.

Here are the 11 developers qualified by HABC to buy the city’s public housing projects:

Landex, Pennrose, The Woda Group, Telesis, Enterprise Homes, PIHRL Development, The Community Builders, Michaels Development, The French Companies in partnership with Community Housing Partners, Homes for America, and Community Preservation & Development Corp.

Wabeke said her group, the Legal Aid Bureau and Maryland Disability Law Center are scheduled to meet with Graziano and his aides next week to discuss their concerns.

“The RAD timeline has been very quick, but we are confident we can iron out our concerns with the housing authority,” she said.

Net Loss of Housing?

One set of questions involves whether there will be a net loss of public housing through renovation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has issued guidelines calling for no more than a 5% reduction in total housing stock, but there may be exceptions, Wabeke said.

HABC is planning to convert efficiency units into larger apartments, which would reduce the city’s overall stock of public housing, which stands at about 10,700 units. There were 27,978 applications for public housing at the end of 2013.

“We already have a staggering backlog of applicants for public housing,” Wabeke said. “Is the city going to match the loss of units? This is of critical importance to our clients.”

In addition, HABC has proposed more stringent credit and criminal-record screening for future applicants of public housing. “It’s not clear to us whether making capital improvements and changing eligibility requirements go hand-in-hand,” Wabeke said.

“We serve a vulnerable population that has to regularly choose between buying food or paying the utility bill on time. Most, if not all, of our clients would not be able to meet the proposed criteria.”

Property Tax Breaks

Wabeke’s concerns were echoed today by veteran 14th District Councilperson Mary Pat Clarke. “We need to make sure that we have the details, especially about the safety net for current residents of the buildings.”

Clarke said she had only a vague idea of the privatization plan before she read about it in the media. “It may have been something I heard we were applying for,” she said, adding that she now worries about “perpetual renovations” that would perpetually disrupt the lives of residents.

In its current proposal, HABC would let developers rehab the units while residents remain in the buildings. Wabeke and others have questioned the wisdom of this plan, especially among elderly residents and families with children.

Private developers will be able to renovate the properties through substantial tax credits granted by the federal government.

In addition, HABC proposes to retain the property-tax-exempt status of public housing as it passes into private hands – a good deal for developers, but something that would erode the tax base because the city would not benefit from the long-term added value of the buildings.

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