At the former Perkins Homes public housing complex, a dense wall of brick buildings is coming down as wood framing goes up.

It’s an encouraging sight for former residents, neighborhood business owners and community leaders, who hope that the redevelopment will bring about the sweeping transformation of the site long promised by the city.

The ambitious undertaking, which is being financed with federal, state and city dollars as well as private investment, aims to replace a vestige of Baltimore’s aging public housing infrastructure with more than 2,000 new mixed-income housing units.

Former residents who have been guaranteed housing in the new project say they’ve been anxiously waiting to see signs of progress on the multi-block project site just east of Little Italy since they were relocated from the complex. On Wednesday, at a news conference marking the next phase of the demolition, former residents returned to the site of their former homes, many of which have been reduced to rubble in recent months.

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“This development and transformation is reshaping Baltimore’s neighborhoods that we know had extreme levels of poverty into sustainable, thriving mixed-income communities,” said Mayor Brandon Scott, before taking the driver’s seat of an excavator. “This is a legacy project that will change the lives of generations to come.”

Residents could start moving into new homes in early 2024, officials said Wednesday.

The project was jump-started in 2018 with a $30 million grant award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal housing officials this month awarded the city an additional $10 million for the project, which the city projects will cost about $1 billion overall through funding from public, private and nonprofit partners.

That includes $76 million in tax increment finance money from the city, which enables developers to use future property taxes generated from the site to pay off bonds issued for public infrastructure, such as road paving, water and sewer service.

All units will be delivered by 2030, said Janet Abrahams, CEO of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

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Janet Abrahams, CEO of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, speaks during a press conference on the Perkins Homes redevelopment on April 26, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Previously home to around 600 families, the public housing complex, which dates back to 1942, had deteriorated due to prolonged disinvestment. The site once served as a crucial affordable housing resource in the center of the city, but had become racially segregated: In 2017, two-thirds of residents were living in poverty, and 98% were African-American.

The Perkins-Somerset-Oldtown Transformation plan calls for replacing all 629 public housing units at Perkins with new rental housing reserved for former residents, along with 23 additional units. Roughly 365 more units will be available at market rate, along with about 330 units at a rate considered affordable to households making less than 80% of the area median income.

The project does not replace the units torn down at the Somerset public housing complex more than a decade ago, resulting in a net loss of public housing overall.

Denise Street, a former Perkins Homes resident and president of the Perkins Tenant Council, fields regular calls from other former residents asking impatiently about the progress of the project. Street, who lived at Perkins for 50 years, said she’s had moments of impatience, too.

“If I could move in one of those buildings right now, I would,” she said. But she also said she felt heartened by the progress that she’s seen on regular visits to the site in recent weeks. “They are actually moving along,” Street said.

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Developers involved in the project said on Wednesday that the demolition and construction process hit some snags due to pandemic-related supply chain and staffing problems. And the demolition process for such a large site proved challenging, said Bart Harvey, assistant development director with Beatty Development Group, requiring the group to get approval from both the federal housing agency and the city for each phase of the demolition.

“It took us a little bit of an adjustment period to kind of get up to speed on everything,” Harvey said.

In the meantime, the large swaths of vacant buildings have become a hot spot of squatting and drug use, former residents and business owners in the area say. Around the perimeter of the site, chain-link fences are torn and sharp; Inside, trash, discarded syringes and broken glass are scattered along the sidewalks.

Mayor Brandon Scott before the demolition of one of the remaining former Perkins Homes buildings, which paves the way for construction of Perkins Phase III, photographed on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Recognizing the urgency, Harvey and his team hoped to be able to complete the demolition by the fall, but the approval challenges have pushed that goal back to early 2024, Harvey said.

Despite some setbacks, developers and officials spoke with optimism on Wednesday.

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“It is happening despite having gone through the pandemic and so forth, when construction pricing is increasing and interest rates are increasing,” said Pam Askew, senior vice president of McCormack Baron Salazar, another developer working on the project. “But we’ve been able to do it.”

The housing development is one piece of a broad facelift planned for the neighborhood as part of the “transformation plan.” The historic Oldtown Mall — a former market and retail center that has since deteriorated into 4.5 acres of mostly vacant land and abandoned buildings — is set to be transformed into a new commercial center with housing, office space and a hotel. The City Springs Elementary and Middle School, a neighborhood-based charter school, will receive a brand new building. Two new parks, a school and recreational amenities also have been promised.

A few blocks north of Perkins Homes, the first apartments at the Somerset site are completed and full of tenants. Other parts of that development remain under construction.

It remains to be seen how many of the former residents of Perkins Homes will return to the site and how much of the complex’s community and character will be preserved. Abrahams, of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said former Perkins Homes residents have received notice of their right to return to the new units. If they opt not to return, their housing vouchers will become permanent.

Remaining former Perkins Homes buildings, Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Davon Smith, an after-school educator at Living Classrooms’ POWER House community center, located inside a former firehouse across from still-standing Perkins Homes buildings, spent most of his life at Perkins. He worries that too much time has passed since the relocation, discouraging former residents from returning.

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“The old feel is going to be gone now from the community,” said Smith. “It’s like everybody there was a family, but now everybody’s gone their own separate ways. It don’t feel the same.”

The Perkins tenant council’s Street said that most of the former residents she’s spoken to plan to come back. “If you had somebody that was living on them grounds for 50 years, that’s their home,” said Street. “And they want to go back to their home.”