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Old and in the Way

Most Forced To Leave Homes To Make Way For East-Side Biotech Park Have Long Since Moved On—But Not Helen Curbeam

Sam Holden
LAST WOMAN STANDING: Helen Curbeam is still living in Middle East, despite what the city says are its best efforts to relocate her.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 5/10/2006

The woman in the tiny rental office took a red ruler and went down the waiting list.

“Curbeam, Curbeam . . . Helen Curbeam?” she called out.

“Yes,” a woman in the room responded.

“You’re number 150 on the waiting list.”

Helen Curbeam gasped, looked down at the desk, and fell into silence.

There would be no miracle today, no apartment for her at Stadium Place, the affordable senior-citizen housing complex on East 33rd Street.

The news sucked her back to the stomach-churning reality of her eviction from the city-owned two-bedroom home she has lived in for 34 years on the 2000 block of East Eager Street. The building is being demolished to make way for the first phase of the 2 million-square-foot East Baltimore Biotech Park (“Moved and Shaken,” Feb. 22).

The city and East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), which is overseeing this $1.2 billion development, have been working with Curbeam—advising her, cajoling her, escorting her to other prospective public-housing options, including senior apartments at Stadium Place, since July 2005. They had hoped she would move out of her East Baltimore home of her own accord. But after offering her 10 different housing possibilities, none of which was acceptable for her, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City gave her a deadline, May 7, by which time she had to leave her home or face eviction in court.

Out of 396 families that were to be relocated to make way for the biotech park, only three—including Curbeam—remain, living among the demolished ruins of their neighborhood. Curbeam is the only one of those three, so far, who has been threatened with eviction, according to EBDI.

Curbeam says the city has shown her only four prospective places to live in, and she says she would have taken any of them if they were decent places.

“It doesn’t make sense to try to scare somebody half-crazy,” Curbeam says. “They see you only live on a fixed income. They know you don’t want to live in a filthy place. They just stick you anywhere, they don’t care what they are doing to you, how you’re living, anything like that.”

The situation has been hellish for both sides.

Talk to city or EBDI officials and they will detail the extraordinary lengths that they say they have gone to in order to make Curbeam, 67, understand that, as a tenant in one of the Housing Authority’s public-housing units, she has no choice but eventually take one of the city’s offers. If she doesn’t, she’ll be out on the street.

Curbeam was shown several properties in the city, including units in Pleasant View Gardens and Hollins House, two highly sought-after public-housing complexes, according to city records. She was shown far more homes than the neighborhood’s other 28 relocated families that lived in city-owned properties, Housing Authority spokesman David Tillman says. She has also been offered a Section 8 voucher, he says, which she could use to get subsidized rent while living in a privately owned apartment. But Curbeam has been insistent about what she wants.

She wants two bedrooms—the same number that’s in the home on East Eager Street from which she’s being evicted. And she wants an apartment large enough for all of her furniture. (Recently, though, she said she would be willing to compromise and sell off some of her furniture, if she could get a decent one-bedroom apartment large enough to fit her church organ.)

“That’s a part of my life,” she says. “I’m not getting rid of my organ for nobody.”

But federal regulations only require that the city provide her with a one-bedroom unit, Tillman says.

Arlene Conn, senior director of acquisition and relocation for EBDI, notes that not everyone has been a happy about being forced to move out of their homes to make way for the biotech park; many were removed by the power of eminent domain. One resident even threatened to shoot one of the housing relocators working in the area—a threat that was never carried out.

“It’s not like every person was happy to work with us and was completely cooperative,” Conn says. But in the end, she says, none of the relocated individuals contacted her to complain that they didn’t get a fair deal. If Curbeam won’t accept any of the Housing Authority’s offers, EBDI and city officials say they have no choice but take her to court. Conn and EBDI CEO Jack Shannon say eviction would not make Curbeam homeless. Rather, they say, it will force her to finally choose a new place to live.

Curbeam’s day-to-day routine over the past months has consisted of trying to decipher the pile of official letters she’s received from the city—most of which she can barely read. She answers phone calls and knocks on the door as visitors, advocates, activists, a pastor, sometimes unannounced, stop by to talk to her or take her to see another apartment. She is convinced, after the past few confusing months, that the Housing Authority doesn’t really care where she ends up.

The last apartment Curbeam saw, she says, was shown to her April 24. It was an apartment in Douglass Homes, a place she says she would not like to live because the conditions would make her fear for her life. While the neighborhood she’s being evicted from is far from ideal (she often talks about local drug dealers and crime), at least there she knows the people around her, she says.

While evictions are a sad, but sometimes necessary part of life in Baltimore, Curbeam’s case highlights the problems with the process through which the city pushed residents out of an area to make way for development.

The construction of the biotech park brings with it the promise of jobs and a chance to rehabilitate an ailing section of the city north of Johns Hopkins’ medical campus into an idyllic urban locale. But most of the families who lived here before the park was even a dream have since moved to new areas throughout the city and beyond. In fact, some critics of the project say the biotech development is just a large-scale gentrification project with some token benefits offered to relocated residents.

Doug Nelson, director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has played a central role in forming the relocation packages received by many of the neighborhood’s residents, puts it this way: “We want the families directly affected to end up better off as a result of this revitalization—not just changed, not just moved, but really better off.”

Curbeam would settle for just remaining at par with where she is. Over the past week, she has tried to determine what legal rights she has left. She’s tried to determine how long it would take for the Housing Authority to put her out on the street if she continues to hold out for an acceptable apartment. She’s visited a local clinic to document her “bad nerves,” she’s consulted her pastor, her brother-in-law, her neighbors. As of last week, the Housing Authority offered to take her to see one more prospective home, but Curbeam was skeptical.

“If the choice is going into the project or they set me on the street, then they just better do what they need to do,” Curbeam says. “What in the world is there any use for me to go to a place where I would be miserable?”

Tillman says the Housing Authority will not give up on her.

“The door is open. We’ll continue to work with her until the last bell,” he says. “We have committed to working with Ms. Curbeam up to the deadline. Beyond that, it’s unsure what might happen.”

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