Selling off and selling out [Commentary]
A plan to sell public housing high rises in Baltimore to private companies has residents in fear for their homes
Earlier this year, the Baltimore Brew broke a story of a pilot program through HUD that would allow the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) to transition 22 public housing high-rises to private ownership over the next two years. Citing a lack of funding to make repairs to the buildings, HABC claims that the only way they can make capital improvements that the buildings require is to put them in the hands of private companies lured by lucrative tax incentive packages.
Though the wheels have been in motion to implement this so-called “Rental Assistance Demonstration” (RAD) program since late 2012, residents and workers in the very buildings up for sale have been surprised to learn of it only now, with the sales imminent (by the first quarter of 2015 for buildings in the “Phase 1” designation), and with absolutely no opportunity for meaningful participation in the process. This has left many of us concerned about guarantees of our rights, oversight of maintenance, loss of union jobs and the loss of our homes.
So far, HABC has been vague in their presentations about the program. They say there will be similar grievance procedures, similar tenant council funding and organizational rights and similar lease terms, but we have no guarantees. We have not seen contracts, leases or anything else that guarantees that the suite of rights that currently exist under public housing will be protected under this program. Furthermore, after these companies’ contracts with HABC are up, they are up, and what happens to us then is anyone’s guess. When we ask for real information from HABC we are brushed off. We are tired of being treated like children and being told to sit down and shut up while they’re taking over.
If you take a look at the locations of some of these buildings — Chase House in Mt. Vernon, Lakeview Towers in up-and-coming Reservoir Hill, Bel Park Tower in soon-to-be-redeveloped Park Heights, J. Van Story Branch Sr. Apartments in the burgeoning Station North Arts District, Pleasant View Gardens near Johns Hopkins Hospital — it is very clear that these properties will be raking in hefty profits if converted to market rents. To begin with one must understand that the goal of these companies is to be profitable. When they are allowed the opportunity to profit from this kind of prime real estate, we know that they will, and we know that our human rights will be on the chopping block.
Right to Housing Alliance members see first hand how private companies handle low-income rental housing. Recently, three members filed a class-action lawsuit against Sage Management for “fee churning.” This company takes advantage of a public good in the form of rent subsidies by targeting tenants with Housing Choice vouchers, and the lawsuit alleges that they are charging illegal fees to their residents that result in profits of more than $10,000 per month. At the same time, the tenants are suffering in substandard conditions including mold, pests, ceiling collapses and more, the lawsuit claims. We believe this is the culture that is promoted when private companies are allowed to profit off of basic human needs.
As residents, workers and organizers, we are not willing to see the continuing trend of public goods being used for private gain. When public goods are treated as a commodity, the needs of people are put in conflict with the companies’ desire to profit, and we always lose. We will not stand for this. The same ways that governments find ways to fund stadiums and casinos, luxury condominiums, etc., they should be able to find ways to fund basic human needs such as permanently affordable housing, schools, living-wage jobs and recreation centers.
The RAD spells the end of public housing in Baltimore. If HUD and HABC are getting out of the business of providing low-income housing to people who need it, and are using the RAD program to do it, we say turn these buildings over to community control. Community support for residents and workers is growing every day, and we will be marching together on May 28th to ensure that we will not lose our homes and jobs and that when you’re selling off these buildings you are not selling us out.
Gary Stroud is the tenant council treasurer at Bernard E. Mason Senior Apartments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anthony Coates is the President of AFSCME Local 647 and can be reached at email@example.com. Also contributing to this piece are: Mitch Peterson, a resident at Chase House and a member of the Right to Housing Alliance; Sharon Jones, tenant council president at Bel Park Tower; and Kori Jobes and Jessica Lewis of the Right to Housing Alliance Leadership Council.