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Mobtown Beat

Right of Return

Displaced Uplands Tenants Demand Return to Former Homes

Christopher Myers
LOCKED OUT: Lisa Blunt says that she and other former residents of Uplands Apartment complex were forced to accept substandard housing after they were kicked out of their apartments by the city and HUD.

By Jill Yesko | Posted 12/1/2004

By the time Lisa Blunt left her $463 a month apartment in the now-shuttered Uplands Apartment complex in April of this year, she says she had been living without hot water or trash collection for more than two months.

“Uplands was once a great place to live,” says Blunt, a 24-year resident of the West Baltimore apartment complex and head of the Uplands Apartment Tenants Association. “HUD and the city hung us out to dry.”

Blunt is angry over what she and 600 other former tenants of Uplands claim were strong-arm tactics on the part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city to remove and relocate them to substandard housing, often far removed from the Uplands neighborhood they called home, as part of a plan to redevelop the 46-acre site into an upscale housing development. Former Uplands tenants filed suit against the city and HUD in 2003 to demand the right to move back to the area, known for its tree-lined streets and parklike setting, once redevelopment is complete. Advocates for the tenants say that many of the families displaced by the redevelopment effort have had to accept substandard housing and are afraid they will never be able to afford to move back to the Uplands area once the redevelopment project is finished.

“Our clients have been displaced to make way for housing that will inevitably be beyond their means,” says Hannah Lieberman, director of advocacy for the Legal Aid Bureau in Baltimore, who filed a case on behalf of the former tenants against HUD last year. “They’ve been forced to move to poorer and more segregated neighborhoods.”

The city has been in negotiations with HUD over the redevelopment of Uplands since November 2001; the initial exodus of tenants from multiple low-rise buildings, located on Edmondson Avenue near the city line, began in 2002 when HUD acquired the property after its owners defaulted on the mortgage. According to Legal Aid’s assistant director of advocacy for housing, Gregory Countess, the tenants began to face problems when HUD first started handing out Section 8 relocation vouchers. Though the complex had already been in decline for nearly a decade, tenants found it difficult to find comparable affordable-housing options.

“In Baltimore City the success rate for people [with Section 8 vouchers] to find housing is 38 percent,” Countess says. “That means that only 38 out of 100 people with Section 8 vouchers succeed in finding housing.”

The situation intensified in December of 2003 when the city acquired the 52-acre Uplands parcel from HUD for $20. The city is planning a $67 million redevelopment at the site that calls for demolition of the brick 1940s-era complex and construction of more than 1,000 housing units, including single-family homes costing up to $400,000.

In January 2004, the city began relocating the 17 families still living in the mostly vacant 970-unit Uplands complex to a nearby motel.

“We put them in the hotel because conditions in the apartments were so bad,” says Douglass Austin, the city’s deputy commissioner for development. “This was a failed apartment complex before the city came onto the project.”

Austin says that the tenants the city inherited with the complex, who have said that the city has not been responsive to their concerns and complaints, are exaggerating.

“We went above and beyond the letter of the law to make sure those families were taken care of,” Austin says. “This [the 17 families] is not a typical pool of renters. Some had criminal records or issues with landlords.”

Lawyers for Legal Aid—which now represents more than 600 of Uplands’ 900 former tenants—dispute Austin’s claim that the families had issues above and beyond those typical of other renters. If anything, Lieberman says, many of her clients were relocated to areas of the city that were poorer and more crime ridden than they were accustomed to. In some cases, Lieberman says, the tenants were moved to neighborhoods where conditions such as lead paint and difficulties accessing medical care posed significant health risks.

In September, a federal judge ordered HUD to reconsider its sale of Uplands to the city and examine the fair-housing implications of the project—a move that city officials worry may curtail the project. In that ruling, HUD was cited by U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake for not fully taking into account the impact of the city’s redevelopment scheme for the Uplands tenants, particularly their ability to find adequate housing.

HUD spokesman James Kelly spokesman declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing litigation.

Countess says that of 585 relocation vouchers issued by HUD only 285 were actually used because tenants couldn’t find comparable housing that was covered under the voucher allowance or were unable to find housing that was safe to live in.

“The whole Section 8 process was made much more onerous for the tenants than it needed to be,” Countess says, citing what he calls the inequitable formula used to calculate Section 8 vouchers as the root problem. “Section 8 will only pay a rent that is deemed reasonable for that area.”

Between 1990 and 2003, Countess says, the city lost 7,000 affordable-housing units (a figure city officials question, noting a net increase of more than 3,000 Section 8 units approved since 2001), and that less than 50 percent of privately owned Section 8 applicants are approved to enter the program after being inspected. According to Legal Aid’s chief attorney, the demolition of Uplands is yet another loss of low-income housing opportunities in the city.

Lieberman says the proposed redevelopment of Uplands underscores an alarming national trend among government and local agencies to favor upscale development over access to middle- and low-income housing. “There has been a dramatic loss of affordable-housing units across the country,” he says.

Former Uplands tenants say they have little patience for arguments over housing statistics or policy trends. They are more concerned about practical matters, such as where they will be living from month to month or even day to day. Some former tenants say that due to the problems they’ve experienced getting Section 8 housing they have had to move in with relatives. Some claim to have become temporarily homeless.

“It was stressful, especially when you have children,” says Lena Boone, who now lives with her 11-year-old daughter in lower Edmondson Village. Boone, whose family was one of final 17 families to remain in Uplands, says that toward the end, once the city took over the complex in 2004, she lived in Uplands without hot water and sometimes without electricity.

“They did that on purpose, to force you out,” Boone insists. Boone says she had to use her oven to heat her apartment because she had no hot water—a claim refuted by the city’s Douglass Austin. She also says she had to send her daughter to stay with relatives on the weekends because of inadequate heat or hot water. When it came time for the city to relocate the remaining families out of Uplands, she says, the city provided her with outdated housing lists.

“The places the city wanted to send you to were really horrible,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let them force me to live with rats.”

Like Boone, 84-year-old Cecelia Stepto was forced to leave her Uplands apartment by HUD. She says she did not want to move from the area because it was close to family members she depended on for assistance. She now lives in the high-rise Lakeview Towers near Druid Hill Park. Stepto, who uses a cane to get around, says she is afraid to leave her new apartment because she is afraid of crime in her new neighborhood.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a cage,” Stepto says. “But I find things to smile about every day.”

Until the courts decide the fate of the Uplands project, many former tenants say they will continue to push for the right to return to their old neighborhood. Lisa Blunt, for one, would like to see the city offer all former Uplands tenants access to new, affordable housing within the redeveloped Uplands area. And she wants the city to offer a discount program for first-time homebuyers that would allow low- and middle-income Uplanders to buy into the redeveloped community alongside the upper-income homebuyers the city is hoping to attract.

City officials say they support creating affordable housing as part of new, mixed-income developments throughout the city. What they do not want to do, Austin says, is create another version of the old Uplands apartment complex.

“It would be ludicrous for us to rebuild what had failed on this site,” he says. “The reason the Uplands apartments failed was because there was a concentration of poverty on that site. What we’re trying to put back there is a mixed-income community managed to a high standard.”

For now, Lisa Blunt remains pessimistic about her chances of returning to her former neighborhood.

“Baltimore City’s slogan is to believe,” Blunt says. “But who are you supposed to believe?”

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