Friday, September 15, 2017

Perkins Homes: Opportunity or Displacement?

Perkins homes, a public housing project at the periphery of Fells Point represents pretty much all current urban housing issues:
  • the sad shape of public housing
  • the privatization of public housing
  • the ongoing reduction of protected affordable housing units in urban areas
  • gentrification and urban renewal
Complaints about Perkins Homes, a large public housing complex of two story walk-ups wedged between what is now Albermarle Square, the Central Avenue corridor and Broadway in upper Fells Point, have been numerous over the years. Residents suffered from bad quality of life in the 688 unit complex consisting of 48 buildings on 17 acres of land which was created in response to the housing needs of post WW II America and is the oldest remaining public housing project in Baltimore.
Former Housing Commissioner Graziano in discussion with
protesting Perkins Homes  residents in 2016 

In 2002 the City's HABC finally set aside $9.3 million for upgrades and orchestrated a Saturday session with residents, architects and housing officials to determine rehabilitation goals. At the time HABC was fixated on giving the homes gabled roofs as they had done on Orleans Street public housing but the real problems were poor public areas between the buildings, small units and lack of amenities. The whole complex was essentially substandard. But what little money there was ($13,500 per unit) was eventually channeled towards ADA upgrades elsewherein HABC's dwindling housing stock and Perkins Homes public housing stuck out more and more like a soar thumb in the rapidly gentrifying outer regions between Fells Point and the brandnew Harbor East.

Since then HABC had announced full demolition twice. A redevelopment reviewed in 2016 anticipated 1,100 units, of which 629 would have been heavily subsidized affordable units, alongside market-rate and moderate income homes. But that $170 million to $200 million  plan fell through.
Lacking the charm of historic Fells Point: Open dumpsters

Recently Beatty Development with Mission was selected as as the new master developer.
Giving the developer of Harbor East and now Harbor Point this project certainly created bad optics. Too much it looks like it follows the usual pattern in which public housing gets diminished and the poor get displaced so thriving areas can spread and the land can be used for a "higher and better use". Certainly housing advocates and some residents spin that narrative.
“Even though they promised us whoever lived here now, once the property goes down and comes back up, they have to give us a place,” she said, “I really don’t believe that.” Roxanne German, resident
The reality is a more complicated because, as noted, it includes almost all of the critical aspects of the current debates about the future of affordable housing. Beatty development has taken over a really hot potato and his project will have to address many of Baltimore's ills that have long festered around Baltimore's housing, its segregation history and the concentrations of poverty which resulted in the nationally known case of Thompson versus HUD under which Baltimore is obligated to de-concentrate pockets of poverty common in public housing. Barbara Samuels of the ACLU, the organization that brought the case says:
Perkins has really unique potential to either further segregation in the city, the two Baltimores, or to begin working toward one Baltimore and resolving that issue. Is it going to be used as an opportunity to really start creating a diverse and racially integrated community?” ” Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for ACLU of Maryland's Fair Housing Project.
Perkins Homes, 48 buildings on 17 acres
The Thompson case can easily become a smokescreen for displacement. Many critics of the HOPE VI redevelopments which replaced Baltimore's massive public housing projects La Fayette Couts, Lexington Terrace, Murphy Homes and Flag House Court have indeed resulted not only in a significant reduction of units held by Baltimore Housing but also in a massive reduction of affordable units available in the city. Turning public housing over to private entities that are under the obligation of maintaining affordability over a certain period of time is a national policy and practiced in many cities across the country. Privatization isn't the answer in some foreign cities with gentrification pressures, such as Berlin:
To stop landlords from hiking up rents, one Berlin borough is taking drastic action: blocking the sale of a building and buying it up for the government. Earlier this week, the inner-city borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg announced that it wouldn’t allow a privately-owned tenement to be sold to an international investor. Instead, officials are directing the sale toward a state-owned independent housing association committed to affordable rents. (CityLab)
Converting "projects" into mixed use developments in which affordable units blend with "market rate" rentals and sometimes also homeownership units is also popular and certainly a medicine against the disciminating look of easily discernible public housing of the past.

Armed with evidence that the zip code determines health and well being more than genetics, it is easy to argue for dispersal of poverty and for "moving to opportunity" strategies in which poor families are placed in better neighborhoods, often outside the city limits. What is less understood is what all these measures do to "social capital", the personal networks of families, and the cultural identity of those who used to live in public and see it as their community.

To find a path towards an equitable future Baltimore Housing has launched a Perkins Transformation process which states these goals:
The Perkins Transformation Project supports a community-driven approach to neighborhood transformation. There are three main core goals:

Replace distressed public and assisted housing with high quality mixed-income housing that is well-managed and responsive to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.

Improve educational and economic outcomes through services and supports delivered directly to youth and their families.
Attract public and private reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods to improve the amenities and assets (ex. safety, good schools, commercial activity) available to the community.
The process has its own flow charts and a long list of partners. The developers have not released many details, evidently waiting for more community feedback. Delegate Brooke Lierman, the project is located in her district, participates in the process. She told me:
I look forward to working with HABC and all the developers who were chosen as partners for the redevelopment of Perkins Homes and the surrounding area to make sure that we do not lose a single affordable unit, and that we create modern, comfortable, and safe housing with first-class amenities, a great school, and businesses nearby.  I encourage all interested residents to attend the monthly meetings at Perkins with the development team and HABC to voice their opinions. (Delegate Brooke Lierman)
Prekins Homes resident Terry Watkins in a SUN video
At the intersection of poverty dispersal, gentrification and displacement, the Perkins Homes redevelopment plans are certain to generate vivid debate. If all current affordable units will be recreated on site allowing all public housing residents to stay in the area, the new development has to increase density significantly in order to be mixed use and economically diverse.

Density has always been eyed with suspicion in Baltimore, especially by people who are used to have their own front door. The affordable housing project M on Madison shows on a small scale how apartments and "townhouses" with a front door can be combined into a taller and denser building. The Printer's Square project (designed by my office) has used a similar approach for an existing industrial building when it was converted to a mix of affordable and market rate units. 1:1 on site replacement is not a given, not even if the Choice Neighborhood grant of $30 million comes through with its own set of restrictions. Off site replacement is possible and current residents who worry that they may not find a unit in the new development once it is complete are rightly concerned, unless the various working groups establish as a clear principle that the new development must have the same number of affordable units or more than the current public housing project.

A truly equitable redevelopment of Perkins Homes located in the thriving area between Fells Point, Little Italy and Harbor East could become a trailblazer for new ways in which affordable units are integrated into a larger development and displacement is not the recipe.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN 2016: Perkins Homes Redevelopment
Baltimore SUN 2017: Baltimore housing authority selects Harbor Point developer for Perkins Homes overhaul
Baltimore SUN 2017: Residents, advocates worry Perkins Homes' redevelopment will reduce affordable units
2015 City Paper story about Perkins Homes
HABC: Perkins Homes
Zoning approval 2016: Baltimore SUN

No comments:

Post a Comment