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Accountabilityby Mark Reutter7:26 pmNov 30, 20200

City backs away from raiding affordable housing funds for a Bethel Church wellness center

The housing department reverses itself following Brew coverage of a $600,000 loan set to go to a church affiliate with powerful friends

Above: The windows of the planned wellness center at 1429 McCulloh Street were replaced recently courtesy of state bond money. (Mark Reutter)

The Baltimore housing department has canceled plans to use $600,000 in affordable housing bond funds to bankroll a community center planned and owned by an affiliate of Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Agency spokesperson Tammy Hawley confirmed late today that the funds will not be used to restore 1429 McCulloh Street after “a legal determination” was made that it was not in keeping with the Affordable Housing Program.

Hawley said she was not aware of any plans to replace the loan with another funding source.

Affordable housing funds were set to rehab wellness center championed by ex-mayor Dixon (11/18/20)

Meeting between church leaders and residents ends in a shouting match (10/17/20)

Withdrawn Before BOE

The loan was scheduled for approval by the Board of Estimates on November 18, but was withdrawn after The Brew made inquiries as to the propriety of the loan.

Hawley said Acting Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy had “pulled” the measure and requested the legal review.

The Brew noted that the project had not been approved for “legal sufficiency” by the city solicitor, as is routine in such expenditures, and was the only project, out of 20 under consideration by the housing department, not to have any affordable housing component.

Instead, the money was to be used for an elevator and a soaring glass atrium.

Sheila Dixon, a longtime Bethel member and former Baltimore mayor, co-chaired a high-powered committee that lobbied for money to rehab the building. Included on the board were businessmen, developers and, until last month, Councilman Eric Costello.

Purchased by Bethel in 1989, the building once served as a homeless shelter and as a site for after-school programs before serious deterioration led to it becoming vacant in 2010.

Because it is owned by a 501(c)(3) nonprofit established by the church, the property is tax exempt.

A long and impressive list of directors for an organization that in 2015 had practically no income or program activities. (Bethel Outreach Center pamphlet)

A long and impressive list of directors for an organization that had little income and no program activities in 2015. (Bethel Outreach Center pamphlet)

Promise from Pugh

Dixon said she secured a promise from former Mayor Catherine Pugh, a sometime church attendee, for city funds back in 2017.

Until The Brew contacted her, Dixon said she was unaware that the $600,000 forgivable loan was coming from the affordable housing bond program. “You need to ask them why they picked that pot of money for the loan,” she remarked.

Previously, the housing department defended the loan as an appropriate use of affordable housing funds because it would “provide health and other supportive service benefits in a disinvested neighborhood” and would help residents who live in affordable housing.

Like the Hoen Lithography Building rehabbed by Strong City Baltimore and Cross Street Partners with housing and other public funds, the wellness center is envisioned as a hub for nonprofit and social service organizations.

But so far, it has not nailed down many commitments. Dance Happens, a youth dance program, has expressed interest in occupying part of the building, as has a child abuse treatment center.

The absence of off-street parking and public transportation presents a challenge to both potential tenants and users.

• To reach this reporter: reuttermark@yahoo.com

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