Monday, July 3, 2017

Hands full at Baltimore Housing

Mayor Pugh's move to split Baltimore Housing once again into two agencies, Housing and Community Development (HCD) and the Housing Authority (HABC) in charge of public housing has met with widespread approval, mostly because of the equally widespread discontent with the previously combined agency.

Michael Braverman is now the Commissioner of HCD which according to Pugh will be strengthened to take charge of some aspects of community development which had been oscillating between HCD and Baltimore Development (BDC). Braverman's rise to the top from his longtime deputy position under Commissioner Graziano has been welcomed by many who see him as a likable and diligent person who navigated the treacherous waters of the agency with integrity and knowledge.

Two Agencies, One Mission: 
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) was established in 1937 to provide federally-funded public housing programs and related services for Baltimore's low-income residents. HABC is the fifth largest public housing authority in the country, with more than 1,000 employees and an annual budget of approximately $300 million. The Agency currently serves over 20,000 residents in more than 10,000 housing units. HABC's portfolio includes 28 family developments, 17 mixed population buildings, 2 senior buildings and scattered sites throughout the City. Baltimore's Housing Choice Voucher program provides an additional 12,000 families with rental housing subsidies each year. 
The Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) was created in 1968 to consolidate local community development efforts with housing and building code enforcement. With just over 500 employees, HCD strengthens City neighborhoods by attracting investors, developers and home buyers. Through the administration of CDBG, HOME, City bond funds, and other creative financing mechanisms, the Department finances and guides strategic development projects to meet housing and neighborhood needs. To hold property owners accountable and keep neighborhoods safe, HCD monitors construction and building activity and enforces the City's housing and building codes. The Department also provides a host of valuable community services, administers the Head Start program, operates three day care centers, and administers a host of energy assistance programs to residents in need.
Braverman, left, HUD Secretary Carson and Mayor Pugh (HABC photo)
How the two new departments will be organized in the future is still largely unknown, the new HABC chef has yet to take her position. When HUD Secretary Carson came to Baltimore, it was still Michael Braverman who met with him to discuss the future of public housing as Acting Commissioner (Carson wants to privatize it).


Already, the Baltimore Brew comes out swinging by giving prominence to a letter from a Sandtown resident to Braverman complaining about the sloppy demolition work on the house next door tho his.

One would assume that "Vacants to Value" will remain part of community development and that demolition as well as code enforcement would stay under Braverman's purview.  He will have his hands full, because, indeed, city organized demolitions have had their problems (most recently a Fort Avenue building demolished on behalf of code enforcement fell onto a neighboring building requiring its demolition as well). In Remington a house being demolished also demolished an adjacent community garden. Demolition of vacant Baltimore rowhouses is a hot topic with many facets and stories from communities who want to see more demolitions to preservation advocates who want to see less.
Sandtown resident Henry Anderson (Brew photo)

In general, there is no question that there are too many vacant houses while the benefits of demolition are largely unproven,

Demolitions cost much and the gains beyond eliminating an immediate hazard from an unstable structure are debatable. The Planning Department is currently trying to link demolition lots to a green infrastructure network of open spaces, but the chances that a useful demolition creates also a useful green space are extremely slim, except when entire blocks of houses are eliminated. The bulk of demolitions leads to open block corners or unsightly gaps in a block of rowhouses creating a new nuisance through exposed sidewalls (rain, heat, cold), and weedy lots that invite dumping and require upkeep.

For the money it costs to demolish a house, shore up the party walls with new concrete block walls, fill the basement with new soil, and landscape the lot it would be sometimes better and easier to stabilize and secure the vacant building until a new use can be found, especially in cases where a vacant structure has not yet deteriorated to the point of being half collapsed. The options of making (especially City owned) vacants look less like eyesores have barely been tapped.

The Mayor speaks a lot about the goal of abolishing homelessness. Occupying stabilized vacant houses would be a good transitional use, even though, the cost of getting some buildings into a habitable condition varies widely This  is where some creativity is necessary. Some cities have established legal homeless camps with semi temporary structures that are more than tents and less than a permanent residence. It wouldn't be inconceivable to employ the homeless in reconstruction efforts as well, although such efforts of job creation have their own set of pitfalls.


Another field rife for reform is the process under which building permits are obtained in Baltimore, also an area under Braverman's control. The Mayor has spoken about this as well. The permit office has enacted a number of reforms including electronic submission not only of large commercial projects but now also of "over the counter projects". The reviewers can now review the drawings concurrently although they still go through the reviews in a certain order to ensure the basics like zoning and site design are covered before others even spend time on a review. But the electronic submission process itself can be painful and has done little in eliminating the favorite ploy of reviewers. The trick consists of reviewers asking early on some basic questions to put the ball back into the court of the applicant. The applicant now has to respond to the questions before the review clock starts ticking again.

The issues with the permitting process has its own section in the Pugh Transition Report.
Every year, more than 30,000 building permits are issued in Baltimore, representing more than a billion dollars of investment in the City.1 Unfortunately, the current permit issuance process includes a number of barriers to transparency, efficiency, and predictability. These barriers contribute to a suboptimal customer experience and diminish developer and investor confidence. Fortunately, there are a number of opportunities upon which the Pugh Administration is prepared to act. (Transition Report)
 The Transition Report makes a number of recommendations that heavily rely on technology and integration of the e-file permits with on site inspections and tiptoes around one of the key issues, the lack of qualified personnel among reviewers and inspectors due to a high stress work environment and low pay. Anybody who has dealt with permits knows that the settings is fraught with tension because applicants generally assume that the reviewers are giving them the run-around and the reviewers think that the applicants are too lazy to study the codes correctly. Baltimore has tried for years to instill a culture in which plan review is a service that the City provides and not a test in which applicants are proven to be fallible. Reviewers like to say "I am not your code consultant"  meaning that they shouldn't have to explain the code if they reject a particular design option.
Mayor Pugh announces e-file for small permits (SUN photo)

A preliminary early review option in the form of a paid meeting with a reviewer and the fire inspector is supposed to provide plan preparers with the option of discussing issues before lots of time and money has been invested in drawing up a solution that reviewers would later reject causing costly delays and re-submissions. Ideally such an early review should be outcome-oriented as in "how life, safety and welfare of the prospective building occupants can be ensured", providing flexibility in how it can be done that is urgently needed in a city that has so much adaptive re-use and rehabilitation of buildings that were built long before modern codes were as refined as they are now. Alas, the departure of a very qualified fire inspector who was able to discuss fire safety on a very high level of experience and knowledge of the code and applicable research has left the review of code and fire issues as a high risk game in which decisions as to what would be accepted and what not appear rather random.
"This is a guiding principle of Mayor Pugh's administration, and that is to improve the customer experience so that the customer can be doing what we want them to be doing: investing their time and energy into Baltimore city properties." Braverman
Given how much development can contribute to economic development, the City must see that saving money by letting reviewers work on low salary and in a crowded unpleasant work environment is a poor way of saving. It furthers the notion that Baltimore is a place where it is hard to do business, especially for the smaller developers, owner and architects who cannot afford their own army of code consultants, expeditors and development consultants that larger companies employ to navigate the treacherous waters of Baltimore reviews and permits.

Public housing, the sale through the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD) and the shortage of  affordable housing and the failure to employ Baltimore's inclusionary zoning are issues for the new HABC Commissioner Janet Abrahams. Worth a separate article.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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