The Baltimore Brew’s Fern Shen and Mark Reutter talk about Baltimore’s infamous liquor board and plans to privatize public housing
MIKE MCGUIRE, PRODUCER: Hello, and welcome to The Real News. This is Mike McGuire in Baltimore.
Today we are joined by the Baltimore Brew, Which is an online publication focusing on Baltimore politics, culture.
Joining us today is Fern Shen, who is the editor of the Baltimore Brew. She started her reporting with The Baltimore Evening Sun in the 1980s, then worked for The Washington Post for 17 years, where she was an award-winning writer covering Maryland politics. Fern founded the Brew in 2007.
Also joining us here in the studio is Mark Reutter, who is the senior reporter for the Baltimore Brew. He also started his career at The Baltimore Evening Sun, but in 1970, where among other things he undertook an intensive study of blue-collar life and business history of Bethlehem Steel, which led to his book Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might.
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So in this segment I want to bring up a couple of other stories that the Baltimore Brew has covered very well. Mark Reutter, we’re going to start with you. Not so long ago, you broke a story about RAD, which is the housing and urban development program that the Baltimore Housing Authority is starting that stands for rental assistance demonstration. It’s an unusual name that really doesn’t say anything. And in speaking with city officials, you found out that it means a whole lot. Well, what does it mean? The name doesn’t suggest anything. The city officials often don’t suggest anything. So what did you find?
MARK REUTTER, JOURNALIST, BALTIMORE BREW: Well, it’s a demonstration program with really tremendous implications. The plan is to take around half of the city’s public housing and privatize it, and to turn over the buildings, particularly the high-rise buildings, to private investors, who would then get all the many tax credits that are provided for low-income housing. And they would invest, under the theory of this (it hasn’t been proven), and improve the conditions, physical conditions, modernize this housing, largely because Baltimore City (and some of the other cities that are participating) hasn’t been able to do it on its own.
But it has huge implications for labor. Many hundreds of Housing Authority workers will lose their jobs. And some may get them back working for the private investors. Who knows? It has lots of implications for the public housing people now, because they probably will be displaced for at least a short time, or they’ll be hugely inconvenienced as these floors are rehabbed.
And then the whole question of the selling of public assets and what this really means, whether a private investor would be more successful in the city, whether disinvestment would be the end-all of this scenario. So all of these we’re trying to look at in the context of really not much information coming out by either the city, state, or federal government.
MCGUIRE: Do you have a sense of what progress they’ve made on the agreements? I know that–.
REUTTER: They rushed them forward. They rushed the agreements forward. Now it’s going to be a long period as they select investors and these investment groups. So it’s a little bit of hurry up and stop. Right now we’re in sort of the stop phase.
MCGUIRE: You know, one thing that always comes up in Baltimore processes is public participation. And the Housing Authority has noted that they have enjoyed public participation in this, and a lot of residents say that they have not. Have you covered any of this? Have you been to any of the tenant meetings with–.
REUTTER: Fern should answer.
FERN SHEN, JOURNALIST, BALTIMORE BREW: Well, first, I mean, the whole thing seems like a sort of a fait accompli–if not quite that, pretty close to it–when the public at large heard about it. I mean, the city and the Housing Authority really, I guess, were not ready to reveal the full plan, and we happened to hear about it early. So just from the beginning, the degree to which this had gone along through the pipeline quietly without public input was striking to me.
MCGUIRE: And this was indeed striking that after you did your reporting, there was a dramatic incident when you are on the Steiner show and Commissioner Graziano called in with some anger in his voice, saying that he wasn’t ready to talk about it.
REUTTER: Right, right, after we had reported it. And Graziano then did begin talking about it and did provide the public and media with more information. And so we think that we served our role there. But, yes, there was a lot of problems with the Brew obtaining that information, and there are still some issues there.
MCGUIRE: And what’s going on? And you had talked about the–in the positives of this, the possibility of investment in this, in these decrepit buildings, some of which are indeed decrepit, some that have been better kept up than others. So what’s the argument in favor of privatization?
REUTTER: That the federal government now, due to cutbacks from Congress, does not have the money, the feds don’t give the city enough money to maintain these buildings, although they give the city quite a bit of money, and somehow there’ll be a magic bullet that these private investors, through use of these tax credits, will be able to–the city says Graziano says invest upwards to $300 million, which is quite a fantastic figure.
But Fern did some reporting even before we did RAD on the conditions of some of the senior high-rise housing. And what she found was that for most residents, they don’t need grand rehabilitations of these buildings. What they need is security, decent maintenance, that when a water faucet or toilet doesn’t work, that it in a reasonable time period gets fixed. So what we’re getting here, very similar to what we see in a lot of things in Baltimore, is these future grand plans while the daily maintenance of very important things for the citizens is poor.
SHEN: Yeah, is ignored. Yeah.
REUTTER: And is ignored.
SHEN: So he’s talking about belt Bell Park Towers, which I’ll quickly tell you is a senior public housing complex up near Pimlico. And, yeah, there were seniors outside protesting with their signs in the heat because the security there was terrible. There were drug dealers, you know, terrorizing them, writing graffiti, threatening graffiti in the elevators, mugging people in the hallways of this place.
MCGUIRE: And this is specifically seniors housing, Bell Park Towers?
SHEN: Yeah. Yeah. And it all goes back to some policy change some years ago from the federal level, whereby they blend in–it’s a mixed population now of seniors and people with disabilities, so that brings in–not seniors, but adults and families, and they’re bringing in their friends, and they’re propping open the door in the back, and people are coming in and sleeping on mattresses and urinating in the stairwells. And so it was a real nightmare for these residents. So, yeah, as Mark says, it’s the day-to-day living of people who–conditions of people who are not down at the harbor, not down in the wealthy, gentrified areas and are in the vast rest of the city really gets ignored. So we’re happy to be able to cover that.
MCGUIRE: I wanted to follow up on a couple of things that you were saying, Mark. One was the argument of the government shedding these public assets. So in that light, Baltimore, it’s not just in housing that Baltimore has been shedding public assets. There was a big issue a couple of years ago around the privatization of recreational centers. And you’ll hear officials making what would be a very conservative argument coming from any kind of media pundit about how the government must shed these assets because we’ve been unable to administer them. And that’s to some degree what’s happening here with the public housing administration or public housing authority, right?
REUTTER: Right. It’s happened there. It’s happened with rec centers. It’s happened with Recreation and Parks, more in general. It’s happening with the public schools. Yeah, there is a tendency and trend of the city government privatizing things and sort of withdrawing critical public services. They’re talking about privatizing or turning the garbage collection into an enterprise unit. At the same time–and this is–we’ve been at the forefront of and people are very concerned about–the same government gives tax incentives to downtown Inner Harbor and Harborplace developers. So they’re spending a huge amount of time sort of trying to pick winners in the development field without ever good questioning–we’ve tried to do it–of whether this is even a role that they should be engaged in, while I think we hear all the time that citizens not in the fancified areas feel that the public services, trash collection, etc., is going downhill. And this seems to be critical to this whole question of can Baltimore kind of turn the curve around and start attracting people and kind of keep the people who are now here, many of whom really feel that for their property taxes we pay we get lousy services.
MCGUIRE: So, in terms of RAD and housing policy in Baltimore, you have the probability of privatization down the road, though, in spite of your very good journalism, a real lack of details on exactly what kind of shape that’s going to take.
REUTTER: Right. Next six months or so, we’ll be looking to see how it goes forward. It’s also extremely ambitious, which is a bit worrisome. They didn’t–even though they call this a demonstration project, they’re privatizing around 20 to 25 units, involving thousands of residents. And it would seem to be wise to do a pilot and to see how it actually works in real life and deal with some of the problems on a micro level before turning all this over. But, again–.
MCGUIRE: Which may be the case, with Baltimore being the biggest test case for the housing [crosstalk]
REUTTER: But, again, it involves politics, because many of the developers who are getting this, we have found and we’ve reported on, are very generous campaign contributors to the powers that be.
MCGUIRE: So I want to switch over quickly now to talking about one of the Brew’s favorite subjects, which is the Liquor Board. The Liquor Board has recently changed command, going from Commissioner Fogleman to Commissioner Park, if I remember.
SHEN: Tom Ward.
MCGUIRE: Tom Ward. I’m sorry. So you’ve done extensive coverage of the Liquor Board. And some of it’s actually very entertaining, where you have instances such as the Brooklyn house in the Federal Hill, where they were looking to put a bar, perhaps a little bit too close to a church, but you couldn’t tell, because the Liquor Board measured it four times and came up with four different measurements. So what’s going on with the liquor board?
SHEN: Well, the Liquor Board, we sort of fell into this area to cover and discovered it was a treasure trove, because it really brings together all the kind of quality-of-life problems people have in the city. There was a very harsh audit by the state, state legislators, legislative reference office of the Liquor Board, kind of a repeat of one they’d done years ago, and the problems hadn’t been solved of poorly managed inspectors, inspectors who were supposed to be in one place and were in others, but inspectors who were supposed to accomplish their tasks and were only doing a fraction of what they were being paid for, and rules not being followed. So that’s been kind of the Bible for reformers trying to correct this problem of these nuisance bars that are just a headache for people.
So the Community Law Center, as it happens, got into the idea of basically following them, following the liquor board to see: are they adhering to all the advice, the kind of a roadmap for how to correct problems that the audit laid out? So they have been covering that, and we’ve been sort of covering it along with them, and finding that–well, you talk about what’s sort of useful and entertaining–zombie licenses. There’s a rule that you can’t–after 180 days, if your bar or restaurant is defunct, you lose your liquor license. It would seem pretty straightforward. But the previous boards have just renewed and renewed or just passively allowed these entities to continue on. And they’re very valuable. So we’ve been highlighting these, the walking dead, these Sony licenses.
MCGUIRE: And something fascinating that came up recently under the new commissioner was this institution of a 200 foot rule. We had talked briefly about public participation.
SHEN: Oh, yeah.
MCGUIRE: And there had been a rule instituted that was proposed by lawyers for the liquor businesses.
SHEN: Yeah. Suddenly up poppeds this thing. And it’s helpful to have the lawyers from the Community Law Center, who have sharp pencils and law degrees, looking at this. And they said, wait a minute, this didn’t exist before. And what they were trying to say was that if you collect signatures from people to support something a bar wants to do, maybe expand or double or even quadruple or have entertainment at night, something that might be pretty controversial and disliked by neighborhood residents, as you can imagine, that opposition to that would have to come from people who are no more than 200 feet away from the establishment. And people were sort of saying, whoa, wait a minute, where did this come from? And lawyers were saying, nope, that’s it. You know, if you’re any further, then your opinion doesn’t count. Anyway, the new chairman, his phrase when you bring up the 200 foot rule: “That’s out the window with me,” he says. He’s, you know, the idea that people–you know, so a neighborhood’s a neighborhood and, you know, those lines don’t need to be drawn. But that’s a good example of just the crazy stuff that’s happening in the Liquor Board and we’re kind of watching.
MCGUIRE: Thank you for joining us, Fern and Mark.
REUTTER: It was a pleasure.
SHEN: Oh, it was our pleasure. A lot of fun.
MCGUIRE: And thank you for joining us at The Real News.
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