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If You Build It

Local Housing Activism Group Explains Its Beef With City Council President Sheila Dixon

Frank Klein
YOU WANNA BUILD WHAT?: Consultants for the proposed convention hotel project endure a tongue-lashing from Councilwoman Helen Holton (D-8th) during a recent hearing.

By Stephen Janis | Posted 7/20/2005

There is a story behind the story that’s currently being reported by The Sun and other media outlets about City Council President Sheila Dixon’s public spat with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). On June 28, The Sun reported that BUILD took Dixon to task at a public hearing over her support of a $305 million, city-financed convention-center hotel. BUILD says that Dixon made a campaign promise in 2003 that she would deliver $50 million in city-revenue bonds for the construction of affordable-housing units in Baltimore, and now the group is accusing her of abandoning her pledge to invest in needy neighborhoods in favor of the ritzy hotel.

The bit of unreported urgency underlying this debate, BUILD’s lead organizer Rob English says, is that under the Bush administration, federal funding for affordable housing has “dried up,” and that the city needs to commit its resources to rebuilding neighborhoods without federal assistance.

“The city has to take the lead, or we’re going to be in trouble,” he says. “That’s why it’s important we make the right choice—otherwise affordable-housing development could come to an end in the city.”

According to Shelia Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group for affordable housing, English is right. She says programs like Hope VI, which helped fund the demolition of Baltimore’s high-rise public-housing projects, have seen dramatic decreases in their budgets. Hope VI, which received $570 million as recently as 2003, may only receive $60 million next year, pending Senate approval of HUD’s 2006 budget. The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which assists in the demolition, acquisition, and some of the development costs involved in creating affordable housing, is slated to be cut by some $700 million in 2006. Federal funding, Crowley says, is “decreasing rapidly.”

“It’s generally a pretty bad time for affordable housing programs,” she says. “Things are dire.”

English says that the CDBG program was particularly vital to the work of Baltimore organizations like BUILD. “The money provides the subsidy to reduce construction costs for affordable housing,” English says. “Absent of that money, affordable-housing development in the city will be brought to a halt.”’

Which is why BUILD, a network of church-based activists dedicated to transforming struggling inner-city neighborhoods, is so unhappy with Dixon’s recent actions. They say she publicly promised twice during her 2003 campaign to sponsor a $50 million non-revenue bond that would help groups like BUILD develop and construct affordable housing in the city. But English says Dixon has not delivered, and he believes that now that there is a $305 million hotel bond on the City Council agenda, Dixon has other priorities

“Since the hotel bill, she’s stopped returning our calls,” he says.

In her weekly constituent e-mail, Dixon called BUILD’s assertions “absolutely untrue,” stating that she was a strong supporter of affordable-housing construction.

“Certainly the appearance of Harborplace is a stark contrast to some of our challenged residential neighborhoods . . . [but] the great majority of the development that you see in the downtown area is private investment,” she wrote in that e-mail. “It’s very misleading . . . to continue this fiction that the city spends all of its money on the downtown area. In fact, quite the opposite is true.”

But for BUILD, it’s not a matter of perception, it’s a matter of survival.

“This isn’t personal,” English says. “It’s about the future of this city. . . . Count the number of construction cranes working in predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Baltimore. Then you’ll understand.”

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