Relocated residents speak out - Families forcibly moved out of E. Baltimore find JHU at fault

By Patrice Hutton | November 3, 2005

While residents displaced by the East Baltimore Biotechnical Project blame Hopkins for their relocation, University officials claim that the urban redevelopment is an attempt to salvage one of the nation's most dilapidated and crime-ridden communities.

In January 2004, residents of the East Baltimore area were informed through an article published in the Baltimore Sun -- rather than by the city of Baltimore itself -- that their homes would be acquired and demolished by the city for the development of the East Baltimore Biotechnical Project, which will provide Hopkins with laboratory space in the development's biotechnical and life sciences buildings.

President William Brody called the area that will be demolished for the East Baltimore development -- 80 acres directly north of the Hopkins Medical Institute -- the "worst crime area in the United States" and reported that the condition of the neighborhood is such that "you could call in the National Guard and declare martial law." Brody served on the board of East Baltimore Development Incorporated (EBDI), a group formed by the city to facilitate the development.

Upon the newspaper's announcement of the plan to revitalize the neighborhood through the development of a biotechnical park, residents of East Baltimore formed the Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC) in an attempt to have a say in the redevelopment of their community.

"They say that Johns Hopkins is taking over everything. It's just like the slavery days. They take your land and you got to go," said Rita Berry, resident of East Baltimore for 34 years, who will relocate to the Morgan State College area.

"Many people feel it is Negro removal," said Marisela Gomez, director of SMEAC.

According to Arlene Conn, senior director of acquisition and relocation for East Baltimore Development, Inc., a group formed by the city to carry out the development project, residents were given a "comparable replacement home minus what the city pays through appraisal," which is mandated through the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Uniform Relocation Act (URA).

However, Gomez credits such compensation to SMEAC's instigating a revision of EBDI policies.

"When we first started out, EBDI didn't want to give us much money, but we [residents] did some research within HUD, under the URA, which says that we must be provided with a comparable house," said Pat Tracy, an employee of Hopkins' School of Public Health, who was relocated a year ago.

"At first they were interpreting the HUD regulations the way they wanted to -- as first written in the 1970s," Tracy said.

Tracy said that before the community challenged EBDI, the compensation offered wasn't adequate for the purchase of a house and that the reason the residents are now receiving more money is because the comparables cost more.

"We changed the [compensation] packet to be fair market value plus whatever you needed to get into another community. At first EBDI said you could do that but [could] only move into neighborhoods adjacent to community which are equally deteriorating. SMEAC changed that. We got in the newspaper and raised hell. Nothing Hopkins and EBDI did reached out to residents," Gomez said.

Gomez reported that SMEAC activism also led EBDI to change its policy of permitting residents to relocate anywhere within Baltimore City, and by the end of 2004, it did away with geographical restrictions for relocation.

"At first EBDI said you could ... only move into neighborhoods adjacent to the community which were equally deteriorating."

While Tracy reported that she had no problems with her relocation, she said that she, as well as other residents, have concerns with post-relocation property tax payments.

"People can receive compensation, but they still have to pay taxes. At my house, my taxes were less than $300 a year, but at my new house, the first tax bill was $3,400. But I put in a tax credit that I got for new construction, but I don't know how long that will last," Tracy said.

During the first year after relocation, EBDI will provide residents with 100 percent of the difference between the tax amounts and fifty percent for the second year.

"A lot of people being relocated are on fixed incomes, low incomes or are retired. That's the one thing that terribly concerns me -- how are people going to survive after the first two years?" Tracy said.

According to SMEAC's "Listening Project of Phase I Area of the Redevelopment Project," even though 59 percent of households felt that they had been treated fairly during the redevelopment process, only 40 percent of households felt that relocation would provide them with a better quality of life.

Residents will be relocated in one of three phases. Most of the residents marked for Phase I relocation have already moved.

"Seven years ago we were listed in Phase V, now we're in Phase VII; and now they say they'll decide in a year," said Kenneth Jones, a resident of 25 years.

"People who speak of Phase V must be confused, because there is no Phase V relocation," Conn said.

Between February and October 2004, 173 households with a total of 581 occupants were contacted by the city and told that they would be displaced as a part of Phase I relocation. Among these households, 47 percent were home owners and 53 percent were renters.

Residents facing Phase II relocation were contacted between December 2004 and April 2005. Of these residents, 41 percent were owners and 59 percent were renters.

"These residents have been waiting in this community to be moved by Hopkins for over a hundred years. It's kind of a legend, but it's not because it's real," Gomez said.

"The perspective of the residents comes at its knowledge of the history of this interaction," Gomez said.

"There are more boarded up homes in that area than the entire District of Columbia. This is the worst urban blight in America. There really weren't too many options to fix it," Brody said.

"Previous efforts of redevelopment failed because many of the properties were dilapidated and unhabitable. Maybe a block here and there was redeveloped, but it wasn't comprehensive enough to change the community. This is a broader effort," Conn said.

"You couldn't rehabilitate one house on a block at a time," Brody said.

Residents have also expressed concern that the urban renewal project was a product of what Tracy called "intentional blighting" by Hopkins, which is "buying property until you have enough to do something with it."

"Residents mostly blame Hopkins [for forced relocation] because they feel that ... if you look at the property that Hopkins purchased and let sit vacant [and] blighted, they feel if those had been fixed up, they wouldn't have become blighted," Tracy said.

"Land banking leads to a deteriorated community," Gomez said.

While the residents blame Hopkins for their forced relocation, Brody claimed that it was in the best interest of both the community and the hospital to revitalize the area.

"We obviously would like to have a viable neighborhood and there are a lot of people from the hospital who would like to live in the area," Brody said.

"We would of course like to see as many come back as who can come back," Brody said. However, he explained, studies have shown that often few residents want to return to redeveloped areas.

In contrast, SMEAC's study reported that 61 percent of households relocated by Phase I and 53 percent displaced by Phase II would return to the redeveloped area if it was an affordable option.

"If Hopkins doesn't do something to facilitate low-income housing, East Baltimore will just become a white, gentrified area, like any other revitalized area," Gomez said.

School of Public Health postdoctoral fellow Matt Hall disagreed with the intentions of East Baltimore's redevelopment.

"Moving people doesn't solve social issues anywhere. If the crime is embedded in the community, the movement doesn't sanitize the issues. The same people are going to commit the crimes," Hall said.

"The people who take on these projects don't understand the dilemma that they put the people through. They don't understand they're changing hundreds of lives. There is going to be so much of an impact on the lives of the people being moved," Tracy said.

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