The Real Baltimore: How a Federal Program is Destroying Public Housing
A panel of activists discusses how a federal program to privatize public housing will hurt residents and provide millions in profits to private developers
Taya Graham: If there’s a single issue that illustrates Baltimore’s economic divide, it’s housing. While developers continue to reap generous tax breaks to build luxury apartments downtown, other neighborhoods suffer from neglect. In fact, when Under Armour billionaire Kevin Plank received $600 million in tax breaks to build Port Covington, he also won an exemption from the city’s affordable housing law. It’s this dichotomy between rich and poor, the haves and the have not, which the city has failed to address, a lack of balance even more profound in our public housing, which is literally falling apart, which is why we have assembled this panel of people to talk about how to solve this entrenched inequity.
Jeff Singer is the former executive director of Health Care for the Homeless and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Lucky Crosby is a former housing employee who was a key whistleblower about the deplorable conditions of public housing. Reverend Annie Chambers was the first Green Party candidate to win a city-wide election to the Citizen Advisory Board of Douglas Homes, a city-run housings facility.
Thank you for joining us. Before we get started, we have a package from our reporter Stephen Janis.
Stephen Janis: It was nearly two years ago that a scandal erupted at the city-run housing project called Gilmore Homes, the then infamous facility where Freddie Gray was arrested in 2015. Their allegations, housing authority personnel sought sex in exchange for repairs.
Speaker 3: He asked me to send him some pictures, pictures of my feet. He wanted pictures of my pedicured feet. I felt invaded. I felt disrespected. I let him know I felt disrespected.
Stephen Janis: The crisis was seen as an example of how vulnerable many city residents are when it comes to housing and how difficult it has become for working families to find a home in Baltimore they can afford. It is a lack of stability the city has done little to change since. In fact, instead of investing money to fix the deplorable conditions in places like Gilmore, the city gave a $600 million dollar tax break to Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, all to build luxury homes in Port Covington, a project the city exempted from its affordable housing law.
Speaker 4: The basic idea is to have our government, our public sector, set aside $20 million a year for the demolition of vacant houses and properties and then another $20 million to put new construction back.
Stephen Janis: Which is perhaps why advocates gathered last month, seeking a special $20 million fund to build affordable homes and fix vacants financed by the city, but it is a move that has gained little traction since. Still, advocates say affordable housing must take center stage if the city is to address the underlying conditions of poverty which continue to define it.
Taya Graham: Jeff, I want to start with you. It’s fair to say that we’re in a housing crisis in Baltimore, not just for the poor, but for the middle class. How bad is it?
Jeff Singer: Yes, it’s pretty terrible, and I’ll give you some numbers to illustrate that. There are 238,000 households in Baltimore. Nearly half of them, more than 100,000, have incomes that are considered low income, which we would also think of as middle class, and none of those folks can afford market-rate housing. They all need some subsidy. However, we only have about 25,000 subsidized housing units in Baltimore for the 100,000 families that need a subsidy, so we have 75,000 families that can’t afford their housing every month, and there’s no assistance for them.
Taya Graham: Lucky, you have been outspoken critic of the housing conditions and you are also absolutely key in letting the public know about the sex for repairs scandal in Gilmore Homes. Now we have a new housing commissioner. Do you see any changes?
Lucky Crosby: Currently no changes, and the new housing commissioner, she has not took her place yet. I think the acting one name is Kevin Brazemore, but there have not been any changes as far as the conditions, as far as the communication between 417 and the field people that down on the trenches that are working. They have not been given the support to fix some of these conditions.
Taya Graham: Okay. Michael Braverman was the deputy housing commissioner under Graziano, who had a myriad of terrible and deplorable conditions reported to him that he ignored, including women being extorted for sex.
Lucky Crosby: Right.
Taya Graham: He was the deputy housing commissioner then. Then he was appointed to the interim housing authority commissioner, and now he’s the head of Housing and Community Development.
Lucky Crosby: Right, until the 24th. He’s still running both agencies until the 24th of July.
Taya Graham: Since he was basically Graziano’s right-hand man, do you trust him to make improvements in Baltimore housing?
Lucky Crosby: Not at all. Let me give you a case study right now. I tried to contact him at least 23 times. He has not returned any of my calls or my emails.
Taya Graham: That’s incredible. That’s absolutely incredible.
Lucky Crosby: I even contacted the mayor on him and city council president, Jack Young, letting them know that he did not return any of my calls concerning some serious issues that are taking place in the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
Taya Graham: Reverend Chambers, you are a Green Party candidate who was just elected to the Citizen Advisory Board of the Douglas Homes, which is a subsidized housing project.
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Taya Graham: What was it like being elected to that board?
Annie Chambers: Being elected to the board, the campaign itself was really unbelievable, because tenants were threatened, that if they voted for me that they would be evicted. Tenants were told they were watching who would go in the polls and who would vote. At the polls there were the other candidate’s name all the way up to the door. They had signs with his name all the way up to the door. They tried to make me stand up on Broadway, my campaign, but he was sitting right at the door.
It became so bad that I had to ask for help. The Green Party came out and helped me, first of all, campaign, but then we had to get lawyers out of the Green Party to come to see this themselves, because the Housing Authority and the RAB Board were saying it wasn’t happening, but once the lawyers seen it and went down to the RAB Board and the Housing Authority, then they sort of told the other side, well, you all ease up, because they’re watching.
When the votes was counted and we were all sitting in the same room, the lawyers and me and the other side, the comment was made, okay, that’s all right. She won. She’s still got to come down there where we at, and we’re going to let her know that she ain’t going to get nothing. But I am down there, and I am fighting. I’m reporting to the tenants, and I’m also fighting that we would get a tenant council, because that’s what we started out saying. We need a tenant council.
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the RAB Board, the Resident Advisory Board, appointed someone to be our tenant council president, and the bylaws said you must be elected.
Taya Graham: The Resident Advisory Board, you’ve sat in on those meetings, correct?
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Taya Graham: How does management speak to the Resident Advisory Board?
Annie Chambers: The management speak to the Resident Advisory Board like I would talk to one of my grandchildren. This is what you’re going to do, or this is what’s going to happen, not a give and take. This is not the first time I’ve been on a resident advisory board. Years ago, I was on the resident … Nine years ago. We negotiated on the behalf of the tenants for these laws, policies, really, because they’re not hood laws, but whether these policies would take effect.
That doesn’t happen now. The tenants, I can’t get another RAB tenant to say … They just came up with, okay, you can’t have a grill, a barbecue grill. That’s against their policy. Then the question was asked, well, what about a George Foreman grill? No, you can’t have that, either. Do that make any sense? You can’t have a little kiddie pool that the children … You can’t have that anymore. Then they came up with this rent. This is the last thing they came up with. Say, for instance, this is July, if I don’t pay the rent in July, and go to pay the rent for July and August in court, they say, no, we want September’s rent, too.
Taya Graham: How can they ask you for three months’ rent in advance?
Annie Chambers: That’s what they told the tenants that’s the policy they going to put in effect.
Taya Graham: Jeff, I’d like to ask you a question about Baltimore City residents trying to get more affordable housing. Recently, there was an activist group, United Not Blighted, that wanted to get $20 million in public funds to create affordable housing. What did you think about their plan?
Jeff Singer: It’s a good start. It’s much smaller, of course, than what we need. Affordable housing in Baltimore has been neglected for decades and decades. It’s a curious irony that when the public housing first started in Baltimore in 1937, the five projects were democratically run to a great extent, and each project created its own daycare, and its own chess clubs, and its own drama clubs.
Taya Graham: Wow.
Jeff Singer: We’ve gotten far, far, far away from that. But, in any event, the United Not Blighted 2020 campaign would use government bonds to pay for $20 million to destroy, to tear down housing that’s no longer viable, but an additional $20 million to rehab and create new housing. At that rate it would take us several centuries to house all Baltimoreans, but it would be a good start, because the city has never spent its city bonds on housing for poor people. None of the programs the city has created, including Vacant to Value, especially Vacant to Value, has created, to the best we can determine, a single unit of housing for low-income Baltimoreans.
Annie Chambers: No.
Taya Graham: Incredible. Lucky, I wanted to ask you about something that is close to you, which is you acting as a whistleblower, talking about the sex for repairs scandal that happened in Gilmore Homes, where women were extorted by maintenance workers to get basic and necessary repairs and they were asked for sexual favors for this. I want to know first off if you think that pattern and practice has changed, and what happened to you when you blew the whistle on these people?
Lucky Crosby: First of all, as the union safety officer, I was sent by the president of the union to investigate the article that was written in the Afro concerning sex for maintenance repairs on July the 31st. We was made aware of the article on July the 30th. I was sent on July the 31st. When I spoke to multiple females at Gilmore Homes, I went there asking questions about safety conditions, the rats, the feces running down on the cabinets, the unattended work orders, that at that time there was over 2,000 in the system.
Then, as the women let me into their units, their apartments, their homes, the conversation turned to where I’m asking about an outlet, they telling me about they being asked to do sexual favors by a maintenance supervisor. Then, as I at least spoke to at least 43 women, 23 stories was very, very believable to me, and I then reported it to the union president, then the entire executive board of the Baltimore City Housing Authority. The only executive board member who was not present in early August was Paul Graziano.
Taya Graham: You have already said about unsafe conditions, about maintenance workers making inappropriate requests of women. Have you heard about anything like this happening in projects that you’re familiar with?
Annie Chambers: Yes, in developments. I have a, she’s my granddaughter. No need of hiding it. She’s 22, and she have one daughter. She was living in Latrobe. She’s 22, look like she’s about 15. She would wake up, and the man would be in her house, and so she got scared, and she left her home. She went to stay with her aunt for a while, hoping that it would blow over. When she came back to her home … She paid her rent. We have the rent receipts. The housing authority had moved all of her belongings out of her house. She don’t … They couldn’t tell her. Right now, she’s trying to fight them in court about her property and just to have another place to live.
She was afraid. You wake up in the morning, and it’s just you and your two year old daughter, and there’s a man roaming around in your house … She was really scared. She was also scared, because he told her about the boys on the outside, the drug boys can get in, or they might have a key, so she didn’t know who had a key to her house. This is going on right now.
The other maintenance problems are that there are people that still have mold in their house. There are people that still have the rats. I live in Douglas. Rats is running around like they own the place. I had mold in my house and I had to constantly complain to the management. It messed up a whole lot of my belongings. My clothes I had to throw away. They don’t compensate you. They tell you you should have homeowner’s insurance.
Taya Graham: Let me just take this national for a moment. Our president, Donald Trump, is a co-owner of one of the largest public housing projects in Brooklyn and in America, called Stratera, but there’s going to be cuts by HUD to the federal budget. Can you talk to me a little bit about how that might affect public housing?
Jeff Singer: Certainly, certainly. The current budget for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is about $43 billion. Ben Carson, the new secretary of HUD, and Donald Trump have proposed reducing that by an additional $7 billion. It’s already about 40% of what it was 40 years ago. It’s not accidental that public housing has been allowed to decay.
Lucky Crosby: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Annie Chambers: No.
Jeff Singer: It’s an attack on the poor, for sure, and it’s an attack on the public sector and our ability to take care of each other, because that’s what public housing really means. They’ve reduced appropriations for public housing by 60% over the last 40 years.
The Trump administration wants to reduce it even more, by another 15%, or $7 billion. Some of the programs are being eliminated altogether. The Community Development Block Grant, which provides $3 billion around the country to support community needs, is being zeroed out. It’s being eliminated. The National Housing Trust Fund, which is the only money that the federal government provides to localities to build new, low-income housing, that’s also being zeroed out, completely eliminated. The Home Program, which provides very small grants to help build and rehab housing, is being zeroed out as well.
The public housing operating funds are being reduced pretty dramatically. Just in Baltimore City alone we’re going to lose about $12 million out of the 87 million that we get every year.
Taya Graham: That’s incredible.
Jeff Singer: The capital funds for public housing, which maintains public housing, has been cut and cut and cut by every administration. It’s a bipartisan issue. Democrat, Republican, they all cut it.
Lucky Crosby: They all cut it.
Jeff Singer: The Trump administration wants to cut it even more. They want to cut it by 68%. The money that should be available to maintain this housing, this really important housing, is being eviscerated.
But, as you mentioned, there’s one part of the housing budget that isn’t being cut, and that’s the part that makes profits for people who own projects that the federal government provides a subsidy directly to the landlord. It’s called the Project-Based Section 8 program.
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Jeff Singer: Donald Trump is one of the owners of the largest such project, called Starrett City in Brooklyn, and he makes at least $5 million a year from that project. They’re not cutting that budget.
Lucky Crosby: Wow.
Taya Graham: That is absolutely astonishing that that sort of favoritism could be so blatant when so many other aspects of the budget are being cut.
Lucky Crosby: Keep in mind, Baltimore have a 78,000-plus waiting list for Section 8 vouchers.
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Lucky Crosby: Baltimore is already one of the developer hubs, because the politicians are so friendly to developers coming in and taking property. When you have developers, they don’t want scattered properties. They want large area properties.
Annie Chambers: Right, right.
Lucky Crosby: When you drive through East and West Baltimore, there are blocks missing where nothing has been developed, because people are still living in that community.
What I am saying is, we don’t have a strategy in creating affordable, decent, safe houses in Baltimore. Everybody have wanted to come in and appoint a director or a commissioner outside of Baltimore, and the politicians, or, I would say, the board of commissioners, because Housing have a board of commissioners, they supposed to have the ultimate say in everything housing. They have the authority to fire the executive director and the commissioner on both sides. But, for my 15 years they have been quiet and allowed the decay to go on. I personally have reported to this current board the conditions of public housing and they chose to do nothing.
Taya Graham: I wanted to ask about the RAD program. It’s sort of an unusual federal program that’s being created that, if I understand it properly, are taking public housing and turning it into private profits. Could you tell me a little bit about that, Jeff?
Jeff Singer: Yes, yes. This is an Obama initiative that Trump and Carson support, because it privatizes a public good, public housing, and creates a new profit center for developers. In Baltimore City 22 public housing developments are being turned over to private owners, some not-for-profit, but many for profit. They’re receiving a bonus from the federal government for each apartment, more than the housing authority received.
They also receive low-income housing tax credits, which means that those tax credits are no longer available to create additional units of affordable housing. These new profits that are being given to the private developers are dollars that should be used directly to improve the housing, but instead they’re used for profits for private developers. It’s a terrible, terrible, terrible idea supported by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Taya Graham: It’s interesting, because if it was actually started by President Obama, and Donald Trump likes it, then there must be an incredible profit lurking there.
Lucky Crosby: Exactly. Exactly. Keep in mind, when we first found out about RAD, we was out against it just five years ago.
Annie Chambers: Right.
Lucky Crosby: One of the promises was that the high-rises was gonna be the only buildings taken. They lied again. Now the families are out, now we talking about at least 500 people going to be out of work, because all this is done to get the union out of public housing.
Taya Graham: I see.
Lucky Crosby: All this is done just because it’s no agreement to say that the new private owners are going to take the union with the building, or the union with the property. This was my great fight. Nobody here saying that we don’t need more funding to do the proper renovation. What we are saying, you have the money, you mismanaging it. Now you’re punishing the employees and the residents of the city because you mismanaged for years, decades perhaps, by not creating a model and a sustainable growth method to do affordable housing in Baltimore.
You mentioned Mr. Plank getting $600 million. Why wasn’t that $600 million be given to public housing to do the proper renovation? We’re talking in July when it reached 118 degrees in the unit, there’s no forced air units in the public housing family developments.
Annie Chambers: There’s no air, and they came up with you can’t even have an air conditoner.
Lucky Crosby: I think they say one. You can have one.
Annie Chambers: We fought to get one air conditioner in a unit. You can only have one air conditioner-
Lucky Crosby: Window unit.
Annie Chambers: One window unit. There’s children, there’s the parent room, so your child-
Taya Graham: It’s not enough. One box unit isn’t enough for a whole apartment.
Annie Chambers: No, it’s not enough, and in your kitchen and the living area, dining area, all of that. You can only have the one unit.
Taya Graham: Reverend, what do you-
Annie Chambers: If you have one window in a room, you can’t have any.
Lucky Crosby: Right, because that block the egress.
Annie Chambers: That’s right.
Lucky Crosby: A way to get out, egress.
Annie Chambers: Right.
Taya Graham: Reverend, what do you think about this RAD program?
Annie Chambers: The RAD program definitely won’t benefit tenants. It will not benefit public housing tenants, and the reason … We said it when it come up, because everybody was saying, well, it’s Obama program. I’m not an Obama fan. I want everybody to know that. But the program does not benefit public housing tenants, and also the RAD program, they will give you a rent subsidy, you understand? It’s not like they going to give you a unit. They’ll give you a rent subsidy. You’ll get a certificate, something like a Section 8. But you do have to come back every year to qualify for that subsidy in the first place.
Lucky Crosby: Right, right.
Annie Chambers: Your landlord may say this year your rent is $800, he can go up two or three more hundred dollars. You couldn’t even pay the eight.
Lucky Crosby: But housing stated, they have it that they can’t go up on the rent.
Annie Chambers: That’s what they-
Lucky Crosby: Right.
Annie Chambers: Yeah, but see-
Lucky Crosby: But they can put you out if you violate your lease.
Annie Chambers: They can put you out. They can put you out. The landlord can have you to move out. He can say, well, I don’t want to rent to public housing tenants anymore. I don’t want to be a part of the program. But then you are stuck with looking for somewhere to live with your family. All of this, we took in consideration when we said rents in this city has tripled, just tripled. People, working poor, the low-income working class person don’t have money enough to pay rent, and utilities, and all the things that they need.
I often tell my family, no, you all ain’t middle income, you all poor. You still poor. There’s two class of people, poor and rich, and you ain’t rich, so you’re poor. You’re working class person, and you still crying about utilities and all the subsidies you’re trying to get, mother, can you help me get some gas and electric, or whatever whatever. I tell people that all the time. But when rent in the worst neighborhoods, the rents start at $800 a month.
Taya Graham: $800 a month.
Annie Chambers: A month for an apartment or a house. You got people paying to live in one room, four and five hundred dollars a month to live in one bedroom. That’s what I’m saying, all of those things is what I see everyday, and those are the things that we are fighting, because the most stability in any society is a home. You can’t do anything else unless you truly have a home.
Lucky Crosby: I would be remiss if I don’t bring up the name of Miss Charmaine Wilson, who was murdered at Rosemont Dukeland in front of her kids, a mother of eight.
Annie Chambers: Right, right.
Lucky Crosby: Keep in mind what failed her, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the Baltimore City Police Department.
Annie Chambers: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Lucky Crosby: I’m told that her family had retained council, and Billy Murphy by the way, so we know another lawsuit coming because of the lack of leadership, and the lack of them having any idea how to do public housing. They bring people in, and nothing was done. The reason I can say Rosemont Dukeland, I worked my last duty station was Rosemont Dukeland.
Annie Chambers: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Taya Graham: Didn’t you say you actually knew of some of the complaints that Charmaine Wilson had made?
Lucky Crosby: Yes. Yes, and so did housing. And so did housing.
Annie Chambers: They could have moved the family. They could have, but-
Taya Graham: Did she ask to be moved?
Annie Chambers: Yes, yes.
Lucky Crosby: Yeah, she did. Several times.
Annie Chambers: She got lots of requests in, transfers in, but they didn’t move her, and the rationality to that was told on the RAB Board was, well, where do we put her? Is she going into another public housing? But there were other things that they could have done to support and help this family.
Lucky Crosby: Right. If it was a problem with the size of her family, they have scatter site units, houses that they’re going to-
Annie Chambers: Yes. They got some.
Lucky Crosby: Let’s keep in mind that when an attractive lady make a complaint to be want to be moved out of housing to another housing development or another housing place, what have you, more signs of housing have a problem moving attractive women.
Taya Graham: Lucky, what exactly did you mean when you said that they don’t like to move attractive women?
Lucky Crosby: Let me be very clear, I had had the fortune to work in every development in public housing, and scatter sites. Everywhere I have been, women, female women have made complaints about either their family have grown, the conditions and they want to be moved, and if you are attractive, then 90% of the female housing managers refuse to move the females because they are attractive. Especially if it’s a female manager.
Annie Chambers: Housing, this goes way back, depending on what attractive woman you’re talking about and who the attractive woman is, and what she’s willing to do to get moved, okay? I bring it out front.
Taya Graham: Just be honest, just be honest.
Annie Chambers: Yes, but what she’s willing to do to get moved, because there are some people that has been … Oh, I like this house. Because I was presidents of scatter site for 16 years, and if they like this house, they go back to downtown, 13th floor, talk to some folks, and say I like this house.
Taya Graham: What do you see as the future of public housing? Let me ask you, Lucky. Where do you see our public housing going?
Lucky Crosby: I see them selling all the family developments off, and I see it as no longer being public housing in Baltimore city. I see them moving all the undesirable people they believe in public housing out of public housing.
Taya Graham: Jeff, let me ask you, where do you see public housing heading?
Jeff Singer: If we don’t organize effectively, then it’s going to disappear. If we organize effectively, we can have a vibrant public housing sector, like every other advanced industrial society has. In all of the more civilized countries, 20-30% of all of housing is owned by everyone. In Vienna, 60% of the housing is public housing. It’s beautiful. In Singapore, 80%. In Uber-capitalist Singapore, 80% of the housing is public housing.
Taya Graham: One of the things I’ve learned from this conversation is that public housing is how we show how we care about our fellow residents.
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Taya Graham: I think Baltimore needs to work on that.
Annie Chambers: Yes.
Taya Graham: I want to thank my guests for joining me on this important conversation about safe housing for all of Baltimore’s residents. Thank you so much for joining me. I’m Taya Graham for the Real News Network.