Let’s Talk Solutions to the Failing Morris H. Blum Apartments

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Morris H. Blum Apartments Annapolis
Morris H. Blum Apartments Annapolis

On 22 August I attended the monthly meeting of the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis (HACA) Board of Commissioners, which rotates between their properties. Last month’s meeting was held at the Morris H. Blum Senior Apartments and was well attended by those who live there. During the public-comment portion, resident after resident took to the microphone to tell the board about the building’s nonfunctioning elevators. Built in 1976, the complex is an eight-story high-rise housing 128 seniors in 154 units.

Residents voiced their fear that in the event of an emergency, those who were elderly, disabled, and unable to climb stairs would not make it from the upper levels down eight flights. Frustration was expressed at the board’s full knowledge—for years—that the elevators are frequently in disrepair. One man said that when he ventured out, he never knew whether he’d be greeted by an “Out of Order” sign and forced to take the stairs. Some were grateful for an affordable home, and for the patient hard work of Annapolis City Fire Department personnel who’d been called to the building during an elevator outage to carry residents up and down the stairwells.

The board responded that one elevator was currently functioning and they were waiting for parts to be delivered. However, they acknowledged that any fixes were short-term and both elevators needed to be replaced.

The following weekend, I returned to speak with residents for a deeper understanding of their challenges. 1Annapolis News accompanied me. One person explained that there are two stairwells in the complex, one at each end, both intended as emergency exits. The ground-floor doors lead not to the secured lobby but outside, to the rear parking lot. This man feared wintertime, when the rear walkways may be snow-covered and when “somebody might not make it back in.”

Another resident had responded to a plea from someone who had tried to use the stairs but had lost his balance. He needed help to come back down and await the Annapolis City Fire Department. On a day when neither elevator was functioning, one man waited for hours downstairs in the day room for his turn to be transported upstairs. Several of his neighbors were also stuck in the dayroom without their medications or other needed personal items. A blind person hadn’t been able to navigate the stairs or to read the “Out of Order” signs on the inoperable elevators. Residents voiced their worry about what would happen to that person in the event of an emergency. I asked them what emergency or safety plan was in place; their answer was, “Fend for yourself?”

Many wanted to talk about the elevators, but there were also other concerns. Some spoke of mold in the building. The hallway temperatures are too high, and the hallway air is stagnant, because, it was explained, the intake system pulls in untreated air but does not vent back out. The odor from the trash chutes on each floor mixes in with the stagnant hallway air, resulting in an unbearable smell. Residents on fixed incomes must maintain a minimum $5.00 balance to use laundry facilities that charge $1.25 per wash. Some months, this minimum balance is cost-prohibitive. Most people were open and honest about their concerns, but some hesitated, fearing retribution.

It was heart-rending to experience the Morris H. Blum Apartments from its residents’ perspective. In my journey toward the Annapolis City Council, even though this visit took me outside of Ward 6, it was not an issue from which I could turn away. Ward 6 has the highest concentration of public housing in the eight wards. Many seniors who now live in Robinwood, Eastport Terrace, Harbour House, and the tax-credit community Bay Ridge Apartments may one day also have to call Morris Blum home.

I am certain that the task of managing the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis is enormous. In raising awareness about the failure of the Morris Blum Apartments, I have proposed four possible solutions.

Housing Opportunity through Modernization Act of 2016

The Obama Administration approved the Housing Opportunity through Modernization Act (HOTMA), a program that relaxed the standards on the mix of tenant-based and project-based vouchers. Housing Authority–owned complexes such as Morris Blum are project-based vouchers, where a collective subsidy is paid from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to the Housing Authority for rental assistance for residents. Tenant-based or housing-choice vouchers are commonly referred to as Section 8, where the subsidy follows the tenant and is paid from HUD to a private property owner.

Due to the deep-rooted safety and environmental hazards of the Blum building, should HACA find it more efficient to rebuild instead of repair, using the HOTMA program to secure Section 8 vouchers for residents may be a viable option. Once the vouchers are secured, HACA may assess people’s physical needs to determine which residents are best suited for assisted living care and which ones may be appropriate for continuing to live in senior housing. HACA could then partner with local senior communities, some already existing and others being built, to house the residents, with their rent paid through the vouchers.

Section 202 Supportive Housing for Elderly Program

Under Section 202 of the Fair Housing Act, HUD provides capital advances to private investors to finance the construction, rehabilitation, or acquisition of senior housing. The program further provides monthly rental-assistance subsidies to cover low-income senior residents. This approach would require HACA to partner with the private sector. HACA could act as a liaison to help guide developers through the process with HUD and the city, while advocating in exchange for the placement of Blum residents in the new developments.

Assisted Living Conversion Program

Under the Assisted Living Conversion Program (ALCP), private property owners are provided development capital to convert their existing structures into either Assisted Living Facilities for elderly residents requiring help with daily needs, or Service Enriched Housing for seniors living independently. Using this program, HACA could survey existing apartment complexes in the city or privately owned structures large enough to accommodate Blum residents, and then encourage the appropriate ones to participate in the ALCP program. Again, HACA could act as a liaison with the city, as it did in navigating the city permit process in the redevelopment of its Bloomsbury Square property. In return, it could negotiate for the placement of residents.

Just as in Section 202, the ALCP provides rental subsidies thereafter and may be a lucrative investment for a developer, particularly with the assistance of HACA and the ready-made tenancy of Blum residents.

Healthcare Mortgage Insurance Program

Under Section 232 of the National Housing Act, the Federal Housing Administration underwrites/insures loans for the purchase of properties with the express purpose of senior living. With the uncertainty of funding for certain HUD programs, an-FHA funded program may be preferable. In this instance, HACA could encourage partners from the private sector to purchase properties to operate as senior living facilities. HACA could offer to act as liaison with the city, guide the company through the process, and in turn negotiate the placement of the Blum residents. This option could also be paired with a HOTMA transition and the use of vouchers for ongoing monthly rents.

Each of these solutions would require HACA advocacy beyond its current scope. If we are going to care for our indigent seniors, we have to be willing to go beyond balancing and spending the budget given by HUD. We have to be willing to look at every option that is available to those under our care and pursue each one. This is the kind of alderwoman I intend to be.

Shaneka Henson, an Annapolis native, is an attorney, a mother, and a candidate for Annapolis City Council, Ward 6.

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