Details Emerge for Baltimore’s Plan to Privatize Public Housing

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 9th, 2015.
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A little over a year ago I reported on the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD)—the federal government’s new plan to preserve public housing by turning units over to the control of private developers. Instead of Congress supporting public housing through direct subsidies to local housing authorities—a responsibility which they’ve persistently shirked for decades—RAD would enable private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. Developers would have to keep rents low, and their contracts would continually renew to prevent companies from turning affordable units into market-rate rentals.

Baltimore residents learned last summer that their city would be converting 40 percent of its public housing stock through RAD, but up until this weekend little was known about how exactly developers would be subsidized. On Saturday, Sun journalist Luke Broadwater shed some light, reporting that the city will issue tax breaks worth millions of dollars, and will sell its public housing complexes “for far less than their state-assessed value.” The nearly $100 million collected from the sales will be invested back into the city’s remaining public housing stock.

Through public record requests, Broadwater found that ten developers will be excused from paying $1.7 million in local taxes per year for at least the next 20 years. In addition to city tax breaks, each developer who buys a public housing complex will also receive millions of dollars from the federal government, through federal tax credits and “developer fees.”

Baltimore is one of the first cities to finalize its deals under RAD, and community members have mixed feelings about how officials pushed forward with the program. Housing advocates, tenants, and union workers have led protests, raising concerns of public housing loss, resident displacement, and middle-class job cuts. In general, the city has not been forthcoming with concrete details to assuage anxieties.

As Broadwater reports, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved the tax breaks—“without details publicly revealed or debated” in April by a 4-1 vote. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, controls three of the five board seats. The city comptroller and the city council president hold the other two.

The city council president, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, voted against the tax breaks, citing his general opposition to privatizing public housing. He also worried about the possibility of losing hundreds of public sector union jobs through RAD conversions, like maintenance workers and building monitors.

Carl Stokes, a local councilman, said he’s supportive of the deal because at least the incentives will support low-income people living in buildings that desperately need maintenance and repair. Baltimore has a history of awarding tax breaks to build flashy waterfront developments and tourist attractions.

Nationally, HUD Secretary Julian Castro has called RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities. While Congress has so far approved just 185,000 public housing units to be transferred to the control of public developers—out of a total of 1.2 million units—public housing authorities, real estate companies, and other stakeholders have been lobbying Congress to lift the program’s cap. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to President Obama in December urging him to directly fund public housing rather than depend on private developers to save the units. “Put simply,” she said, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

As Baltimore’s situation suggests, it might be cheaper for Congress to just increase direct funding for public housing, rather than rely on a costly mix of tax breaks, subsidies, and developer fees. Yet such a move is doubtful to happen any time soon. But while RAD appears to be the most likely way officials aim to preserve crumbling units in the near future, even the most optimistic experts cannot guarantee that it will protect the nation’s public housing units over the long-term.

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Baltimore Is Bracing for the Freddie Gray Trials After a Deadly Summer

Originally published in VICE on September 3rd, 2015.
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On Wednesday, a local circuit court judge denied motions to drop the charges against the six officers indicted in the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and declined to recuse State Attorney Marilyn Mosby from trying the case.

Defense attorneys argue Mosby acted inappropriately when she dramatically announced criminal charges on May 1, but Judge Barry Williams dismissed that argument. He also ruled that each officer should be tried separately.

Next week, another hearing is scheduled to determine whether the trials—set for mid-October—will take place in Baltimore or in another jurisdiction.

The court proceedings come at a fraught time for Charm City. Nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to flex its muscles. Activists held their first national conference in July, have been successfully pressuring presidential candidates to speak more directly about criminal justice reform, and just last week, the Democratic National Convention passed a unanimous resolution in support of the movement.

Locally, Baltimore activists have also continued to organize themselves since the Freddie Gray protests ended in the spring.

Amidst all this, the city has seen sharp increases in homicides over the past several months; 215 had been killed by the end of August, up from 138 at the same time in 2014. Forty-five people were murdered in July alone, the bloodiest month the city has seen since August 1972. Concerns about violence and unrest threaten to derail political momentum around criminal justice reform.

In the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) cancelled officer leave in order to ensure that as many police officers as possible would be present throughout the day. Some police showed up in uniform, and others dressed in plainclothes to work undercover. Activist Kwame Rose was arrested in the morning,and one officer suffered minor injuries while assisting with the arrest, but by and large the demonstrations were relatively calm. Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, both prominent figures within the national Black Lives Matter movement, attended the demonstration as well.

Speaking at an afternoon press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said demonstrators were “peaceful and respectful and an example of democracy in action.”

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says he expects the community protests to remain fairly calm in September, but that “the real shit is going to hit the fan” when the court issues its final verdicts for the officers. Charges range from second-degree assault—a misdemeanor—to the rather unusual charge of second-degree depraved heart murder. Moskos does not expect that the cops will be found guilty.

Though the community response is likely to escalate following the October trials, activists say they plan to ramp up protests relatively soon. Duane “Shorty” Davis, an activist with Baltimore BLOC, a local grassroots organization, told the Baltimore Sunthat they’re encouraging people to engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience over the next two weeks, particularly in the wealthier and whiter parts of town. “We’re not just going to go in the black community and wave our hands. We’re going to the white communities,” he told the paper.

City politics also remain chaotic. Mosby, who has been cleared to continue working on the Freddie Gray case, will be campaigning and fundraising for her own re-election at the same time. Her husband, Councilman Nick J. Mosby, has also announced that he is “seriously considering” a run for mayor. And in July, Rawlings-Blake fired the city’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts—citing the rising city violence. “We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore,” she said at the time. The interim police commissioner, Kevin Davis, has been significantly reorganizing the police department over the past two months.

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, tells VICE that he anticipates “a plethora of politicians and organizations” will try and use the Freddie Gray trials as a way to advance their own personal careers. “So that sucks,” he says. In the meantime, his group will continue to push for reforms to the police union contract, which they were doing well before Gray’s death. Specifically they have been focusing on changing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, (LEOBR), which they see as a significant barrier to transparency and accountability. Other groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland, have rallied for similar changes.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, strongly opposes changes to LEOBR and worked hard to fight proposed reforms this past legislative season.

In the face of all the political maneuvering, the city’s activists will be waiting on the verdicts to determine whether justice has been served in a case being watched closely by reformers around the country.

In Hot Water: Volunteers reach out to people whose water has been shut off

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on May 26th, 2015
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Flyers left at residents’ door | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

On March 26, the Department of Public Works (DPW) announced that 25,000 customers with unpaid water bills would have their water service turned off. But it wasn’t until mid-May that there was a list of which residential addresses would be or had already been targeted. On May 16, volunteers with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a local human rights organization, canvassed homes on the list.

On May 17, the second day of canvassing, a group of 10 volunteers met up at RTHA’s headquarters on Holliday Street, near Fallsway under I-83. It was a humid, hot day, the kind where you don’t head outside without bringing water—which, for the volunteers, drove home the importance of access to water.

Though nearly 90 percent of the shutoffs have been in Baltimore County, RHTA is focusing, for now, on the 170 homes on the list in Baltimore City. After Saturday and Sunday, canvassers had reached just over 50 homes.

Jessica Lewis, a lead organizer with RTHA, went over some canvassing basics before the volunteers hit the streets in small groups. If someone answers the door, Lewis instructed, make sure to ask if this address has had a water shutoff.

“We’re not going out to ask if they themselves did anything wrong, make your question passive,” she said. Ultimately, the volunteers’ main “ask” would be to invite residents to come to RTHA’s Tuesday night meeting, where individuals impacted by water shutoffs can brainstorm collectively on a potential response. “Don’t be afraid to agitate them a little,” said Lewis. “You can ask them if they think having their water shutoff is fair.”

The Baltimore Sun reported that businesses, government offices, and nonprofits owe $15 million in outstanding water bills, more than one third of the total $40 million that DPW seeks to collect. Yet six weeks into the water shutoffs, no delinquent commercial properties have been targeted by DPW. By contrast, more than 1,600 residents have lost service.

Half of Baltimore City residents rent their homes, and the water shutoff situation is particularly worrisome for tenants. According to Matt Hill and Zafar Shah, attorneys with the Public Justice Center, low-income tenants cannot get their own water accounts, and DPW does not allow them to challenge inaccurate bills because the water accounts are not listed in their name. “Public Works’ new policy is short-sighted and downright inhumane to low-income renters who are often caught in between the water company and their landlords,” Shah and Hill wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed. “At the very least . . . the city should allow renters to open accounts in their own names and permit them to challenge inaccurate billings and leaks.”

The RTHA volunteers split up into small canvassing groups. One group, including Molly Amster, the director of the Baltimore Jews United for Justice, and Sara McClean, a dietician with Moveable Feast, spent most of the day in Edmondson Village, though no one answered most of the doors they knocked on. At one house on Culver Street, a woman opened the door, closed it quickly, and then had her son come out to talk. He seemed ambivalent about discussing his water situation, but he took the resources offered back inside.

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Canvassing | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Lewis told volunteers that many of these homes may turn out to be abandoned, and indeed many addresses that volunteers visited appeared to be vacant properties. Volunteers took notes after each visit, documenting, among other things, the building type, whether or not they had a conversation with a tenant, and whether the property looked occupied or vacant. Volunteers left blue RTHA flyers outside most of the doors they visited that listed information on how to get support and more involved in organizing.

Another small group of canvassers met a man on Edgewood Street who described the hurdles he had to jump through to keep water on in his house, a particularly stressful situation because he has asthmatic children. He told the canvassers that he paid almost $400, including payments for water bills and jugs and bottles of water for his family.

Earlier in April, RTHA launched an online MoveOn petition calling for a moratorium on the water shutoffs. As reported in The Baltimore Brew, Tony Simmons, an organizer with RTHA, said that they will be organizing and petitioning City Council until there is more clear information about what’s going on; many residents are skeptical that their bills are even correct. The Rawlings-Blake administration says the shutoffs are necessary to pay for infrastructure improvements around the city. By Sunday night, RTHA had collected more than 2,000 petition signatures, and announced that it will be organizing more canvassers at its offices every evening that week. As of press time, they have collected more than 3,000 signatures.

Inside the Chaos, Rage and Confusion That Consumed Baltimore Last Night

Originally published in VICE on April 28, 2015.
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 photo credit: Rachel Cohen

As I walked through the streets of West Baltimore on Monday evening, small bright green opiates littered the sidewalk, pills left over from when the local CVS pharmacy was looted hours earlier. The air felt thick and musty—police had fired teargas canisters near the Penn-North subway station. By 6:15 PM, clouds of smoke were pouring out of the empty pharmacy, which filled with flames. At one point, protestors cut the hose that was being used to put out the fire.

Except for a few young activists hoisting “Justice 4 Freddie Gray!” picket signs, most people hanging around were not protestors. The majority of Baltimoreans on the streets were just snapping photos and watching the events unfold as spectators. Unlike Saturday’s protests, where thousands proudly marched, chanted, and gave speeches about accountability and justice for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black Baltimore resident who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police custody earlier this month, Monday felt perilously chaotic.

By the corner of North Avenue and Pennsylvania, just a half-mile down from where Freddie Gray’s funeral took place earlier that day, two Maryland Transit Administration vehicles were burning. A wrecked police car sat in the middle of the street a few hundred feet down—every one of its windshields and windows cracked and shattered. Broken glass lay by its tires. By 9 PM, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan had deployed National Guard troops, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced there would be a weeklong 10 PM curfew, and all public schools were cancelled for Tuesday. The city was officially declared to be in “a state of emergency.”

Saba Nazeer, a local resident who works with the Right to Housing Alliance, a Baltimore housing justice organization, came out to watch one standoff unfold between high school students and the police. The cops knew to meet the teenagers because a flier circulating earlier on social media called for students to meet for a “purge” out by the mall after school. (Frederick Douglass High School is across the street from Mondawmin Mall.) Dozens of cops were ready to meet the 75 or so students that showed up. Things escalated quickly. Students hurled bricks, rocks, and bottles at the police; cops sprayed mace and teargas. Fifteen officers were injured in clashes around the city, six seriously, and two were hospitalized Monday evening.

“These kids were going to fight for their neighborhoods, and they want justice not just for Freddie Gray but for all those who have died at the hands of police in their communities,” Nazeer said, defending the students. “I’ve been seeing it all day, the police try to put fear in the communities, they harass and bully. They’ve been doing it for decades. And people are tired of it.”

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Speaking out Monday night, hours after the funeral, Freddie Gray’s mother Gloria Darden pleaded for the violence to end. “I want you all to get justice for my son,” she said. “But don’t do it like this here.”

A national conversation on police brutality broke out after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last year, but local cops’ excesses have been a major political issue in Baltimore for a while now. A Baltimore Sun investigation released in September found that the city paid out $5.7 million in judgments and settlements in cases related to alleged police brutality and civil rights violations since 2011. Even before Gray’s death, the city was haunted by two recent high-profile incidents of unarmed Baltimore black men dying in police custody— Tyrone West in 2013 and Anthony Anderson a year earlier. Cops faced no charges following the deaths of either men.

Since West’s death in July 2013, Baltimore community members have convened outside City Hall every Wednesday to call for the police to be charged with homicide. (These weekly demonstrations are locally referred to as “West Wednesdays.”) Activists keep count— Monday marked day 648 since West’s death. While an independent review issued in August determined that the police did not use excessive force, some still insist they saw cops kick West in the head, yank him by his dreadlocks, and beat him with batons.

In September, an alarming video surfaced that showed a Baltimore cop repeatedly punching a man. Unable to ignore the damning footage, Mayor Rawlings-Blake vowed to develop a “comprehensive” plan to address police brutality in the city. A few months later, however, she vetoed a bill that would have required city police to wear body cameras. Rawlings-Blake has said she supports the measure, but felt the specific legislation proposed was not within the City Council’s authority.

Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12 after making eye contact with police and taking flight, but more than two weeks later the public has still not been given any meaningful details about how he sustained his fatal injury. (He died on April 19.) Last week, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts admitted Gray was unbuckled when police placed him in a van despite being shackled and handcuffed, and noted that Gray’s multiple requests for medical attention were ignored. Other findings from the department’s internal investigation, however, have not been made public. More information will be released on May 1— a deadline Batts set to share findings with Baltimore’s State Attorney.

“This is one case where body cameras certainly would have been useful,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We’d have a lot better idea of what actually happened, and we’d know far more quickly.” (A bystander’s mobile footage showed Gray writhing in agony as police carried him away.)

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photo credit: Rachel Cohen

Baltimore Bloc, a grassroots activist group in Baltimore, has announced that they are planning another protest for Freddie Gray Tuesday afternoon at 3 PM. They told me that while their collective has been in “emergency response mode” for the past two weeks, eventually they will begin to outline more long-term plans. The “pace and emotion [has] left us with less space than we normally have to strategize,” they explained. But soon, they will join with other local organizing groups to “turn our attention to the next steps, including legislative strategy at the state level and organizing here at home for the 2016 city elections.”

Speaking at a press conference in the evening, Mayor Rawlings-Blake referred to the Monday rioters as “thugs” who were senselessly “trying to do tear down what so many have fought for.” Some 200 arrests were made by Tuesday morning. Brandon Scott, a city councilman, said, “We can’t let this be a repeat of 1968″—referring to the violent Baltimore riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “Adults have to step up and be adults.”

Tensions between political leaders, police, and community members are unlikely to abate any time soon, but multiple community cleanup efforts are being organized on social media today in West Baltimore. One group will be meeting back by the Penn-North subway station at 10 AM, and another will start at 2 PM by the University of Baltimore. Organizers have asked individuals to bring their own gloves, trash bags, brooms, and food.