On Wednesday, embattled Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano and several other top officials at the Baltimore Housing Authority took a tour of the Gilmor Homes, the epicenter of a sexual-abuse lawsuit and investigation by the state’s attorney’s office in which three Housing Authority workers are accused of extorting sex from residents by withholding repairs to crumbling housing units.
Activists with Communities United, an organizing group which uncovered the alleged abuse during meetings with residents earlier this year, led about a dozen housing officials through several apartments on the grounds of the 70-year-old low-rise development.
The group visited apartments plagued by almost every form of decay imaginable, among them insect and rodent infestations, faulty wiring that has caused fires and blackouts, omnipresent mold that has aggravated residents’ asthma and other health issues, and heaters that haven’t worked since last winter. Outside the apartments, maintenance workers peered into the enormous rat holes dotting the courtyards and were shown dead streetlights that haven’t broken the dark in years.
There was also evidence of a recent rush to redress the worst of these conditions. Fresh paint clung to the coattails of a suited official who got too close to the walls as he climbed to the apartment of one of the plaintiffs in the sex-abuse case. Her apartment was in the process of being made over from top to bottom, her possessions piled in the center of one room under a plastic cover, a new stove waiting to be installed in the kitchen.
Residents and activists say that since late September, when a lawsuit was filed accusing Housing Authority management of ignoring pleas for help from women being regularly and repeatedly assaulted and harassed, workers have descended on Gilmor in unprecedented numbers to try to patch up the most glaring problems.
“What we have seen is there’s been an increase of maintenance since the sexual harassment cases have been uncovered, in Gilmor and McCulloh Homes as well,” said John Comer, lead organizer for Communities United.
Graziano did not specify how Housing is suddenly able to scramble the resources to deliver plaster, paint, and fresh appliances to Gilmor, with what he said are $800 million worth of improvements outstanding at sites throughout the city and an annual maintenance budget that is a fraction of that number.
Speaking outside the freshly painted apartment of the lawsuit plaintiff, Graziano said, “We have been working for the last several months on a number of properties around the site. We had some specific discussions about this one the other day. Our people were sent over on a priority basis at that time based on our discussion.”
Reflecting on the sudden rush of attention that Gilmor is recieving now that public scrutiny is focused on Housing Authority management practices, Communities United organizer John Comer said, “It’s a shame that it had to come to this kind of situation, and I think it’s a bad sign as far as structural government goes, but I think it’s a good sign as far as the residents seeing that when you come together you can enlist your own system of accountability in Baltimore City.”
Comer said that accountability would be the watchword in the coming weeks and months as Communities United monitors the progress of Graziano and his deputies on addressing the crisis conditions in Gilmor and elsewhere.
“We want to send a message that we’re really not playing any games; we’re not playing with people’s lives. We’re not walking through Gilmor Homes just to walk through Gilmor Homes. We’re pointing out real issues, and we expect them to be addressed,” Comer said.
Resident Camay Owens said on Wednesday that a flurry of quick fixes isn’t what Gilmor needs, and won’t solve longstanding structural issues.
“This ain’t no yesterday story, no two-week story, this has been an ongoing story, for years,” Owens said.
Just how long that story has been repeating itself was illustrated by a photograph from The Baltimore Sun archives purchased by Cary Hansel, one of the attorneys who filed the sex-harassment lawsuit, who showed it to a group from Communities United in a meeting at his office after the Gilmor tour. In the photo, a Gilmor resident points to a water-damaged ceiling, the caption reading “Old problems.” The photo is dated 1971.
At the meeting, Hansel told Gilmor residents and activists that city officials agreed to fast-track an out-of-court settlement process for the lawsuit.
According to court documents approved by the court on Wednesday, the Baltimore Housing Authority and Graziano agreed with Hansel and co-counsel Annie Hirsch to move the case to “early mediation,” and requested that the mediation take place within the next six weeks.
Also on Wednesday, Graziano told reporters that the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had begun its own investigation into the case.
A spokesperson for HUD’s inspector general’s office said that it was the department’s policy to neither confirm nor deny the opening of an investigation, and that the results of any investigation are referred directly back to federal public housing officials before they can be made public.
At the end of his tour of Gilmor, Graziano also addressed a separate lawsuit in which he is named, relating to a case of long-running child molestation by a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) employee that began near the end of Graziano’s tenure as the No. 2 official there.
“It was something that was 15 years ago, I’m not even sure why I was named in the case,” Graziano said.
The suit alleges that policies signed off on by Graziano created an environment within NYCHA that shielded the director of a day care center who has since confessed to molesting two children and who was first accused of wrongdoing by another employee in 1998, shortly before Graziano left to take the housing commisioner postion in Baltimore.
Graziano dismissed the accusations, noting that a policy document with his name on it filed as part of the suit in fact addresses a New York law requiring any cases of suspected molestation to be reported immediately.
“I don’t know what else we could have done in terms of the policy,” Graziano said.