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Business & Developmentby Melody Simmons11:39 amMar 6, 20140

Housing authority workers threatened with layoffs

Planned privatization of public housing complexes has city workers and their union worried

Above: Baltimore Housing employees last month at a training session at Pleasant View Gardens.

Hundreds of employees at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) could be laid off as the agency moves toward selling nearly two dozen public housing complexes to private developers, said a source close to the union that represents the workers.

Maintenance workers for the agency are the primary category of employee threatened with losing their jobs, said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City NAACP. Hill-Aston said she has been meeting with officials of the local AFSCME units that represent the workers in an attempt to understand the budding crisis.

“We are trying to see what we can do to try not to have them laid off,” Hill-Aston said in an interview with The Brew. “A lot of those people have been there a long time. They have mortgages, children in college, loans. They are working class people and they work around the clock.”

Anthony Coates, president of Local 647, the main AFSCME union representing housing authority employees, could not be reached for comment.

Asked if there could be as many as 200 workers losing their jobs, Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it would be “less than that.” She noted that the new building owners could potentially rehire current Housing Authority employees.

“It’s not like they’re coming in with a whole staff ready to go,” she said. “They will need to hire people and who knows these units better than them?”

Seniors and Disabled Residents Impacted

Last week The Brew broke the news that the city’s housing authority is in negotiations to sell many of its housing units to private developers under a federal program called the Rental Assistance Demonstration, or RAD, that was established in 2011 by Congress.

The article reported that residents and their advocates have been concerned that tenants might lose their current rights and may ultimately be “priced out” of privatized housing. David A. Prater, an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center, said that the housing authority has promised to protect tenant rights, “but we don’t know what that means.”

In recent weeks, HABC officials had declined to answer The Brew’s questions about RAD or the local push to unload high rises that house mixed-population tenants, mainly senior citizens and disabled residents.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said earlier this week that he is still in negotiations with the U.S. Housing and Urban Development about the RAD plan for the city. Graziano is the executive director of HABC.

Meeting on Monday

The looming layoff of public housing maintenance workers is seen as a direct threat to their livelihood by AFSCME and NAACP officials, Hill-Aston said.

A meeting has been scheduled for Monday between the union and HABC to further attempt to understand what is going on, the timetable and the exact number of workers who are threatened under the privatization scheme, she added.

It is unclear whether some of the workers will be offered employment by the private developers once they take over the buildings. The developers include the Landex Companies based in Linthicum.

“These people are dedicated employees and they are trying to wipe out their jobs,” Hill-Aston said. “They know the buildings well. They know the management and it would be bad to have them all laid off.

“I’m just shocked that it’s happened this way.”

Graziano Defends Plan

During a surprise phone call to WEAA-FM on Tuesday, a defensive Graziano said that the RAD program would offer a huge infusion of private capital into the high rises, many of which are decrepit with aging infrastructure, malfunctioning parts, such as elevators that frequently break down, and plumbing woes.

Federal budget cuts to HUD have led to a lapse in maintenance for public housing units across the U.S.

In his phone call to The Marc Steiner Show, which was discussing The Brew article with panelists Melody Simmons and housing advocate Jeff Singer, Graziano said $320 million would be spent on renovating high rises over the next few years, including new elevators, roofs, windows and exterior work.

He said the program had the support of residents now in the complexes, who would most likely have to move to temporary quarters as the buildings were renovated by private developers.

Porter said Housing officials would “do their best to mitigate” the effects of the RAD program on employees, but need to proceed with it in order to make needed capital improvements “to ensure the safety, security and quality of life of our residents.”

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