When the winds pick up, the windows in Shirlene Littlejohn’s three-story, 1,640-square-foot townhome shake and rattle. The hardwood floors, uneven in certain spots, feel unsteady. And within a few years of being built, she treated the house for mold.
Littlejohn, 40, was pregnant when she learned about the mold in her Uplands home, a West Baltimore neighborhood located within three minutes’ drive of Edmondson Shopping Center that sits about 3 miles from Catonsville. The neighborhood has been infused with cash from the city, state and federal government since the early 2000s in an effort to revitalize it as a thriving, mixed-income community. Littlejohn received a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help her buy the house. It would be her first home, where she would start her family and make core memories.
But the $40,000 doesn’t feel like much of a deal now. Littlejohn said the dream she bought into feels more like a nightmare. As part of the contract she signed, she is bound to live in the house as her primary residence for five years and not sell it for 10 or else forfeit to the city a sliding-scale portion of any profits when she sells. If she were to sell after five years, for example, she would owe the city 50% of anything she earned after subtracting her purchase price, improvements and sale expenses; after six years, she’d owe 40%.
“It’s traumatizing,” Littlejohn said about her home life. The problems there have overwhelmed her such that she has considered cutting her losses and moving out anyway. She has long wavered about speaking out, fearful that doing so would jeopardize the home’s value.
But Littlejohn now feels compelled to publicize her concerns and warn the next potential wave of Uplands residents of her experience. And she’s not alone: She and several neighbors formed a “whisper network” when it became apparent they were experiencing parallel frustrations. Together, they have pursued legal remedies, complained to their City Council representative and gone through arbitration.
But they’re tired of fighting.
“If the city of Baltimore is trying to market itself as suburb of D.C., they can’t side with developers and allow them to build subpar homes,” said Miles Woodhouse, an Uplands resident who cites uneven floors, mold and loose windows in his five-year-old home. “Who holds them accountable?”
The Uplands townhomes were erected in 2013, the first phase of a multi-part effort. That phase delivered 178 units of for-sale housing and 104 rental units on city-owned land. Developers broke ground on the $53.1 million second phase in April at a news event that featured Maryland State Housing and Community Development Secretary Jacob R. Day; Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner Alice Kennedy; and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.
The site once housed a 979-unit apartment complex largely inhabited by people of color and people using federal housing subsidies. Crews demolished the complex in 2006, with then-Mayor Martin O’Malley taking a turn operating the Cat tractor at a news event. Former Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano once referred to the project as “a historic opportunity to build a new community, eliminate blight and provide diversity.”
To make way, community members were relocated and displaced with the option of returning to the neighborhood later.
More than 700 new rental and for-sale units are planned for the site in all. The project is overseen by Pennrose, a real estate development and property management firm with Maryland offices, and Greenbelt-based Bozzuto Group took the lead on developing the homes.
Representatives from Pennrose did not respond to requests for comment from The Baltimore Banner, and a representative from the Baltimore housing department declined to answer specific questions, saying only that the deed restrictions came as a requirement for those who received the HUD grant.
A HUD spokesperson said Friday that the agency wasn’t aware of any homeowner complaints at the site. “Those complaints go to the master developer, contractor or the city,” a spokesman said in an email. He added that HUD provided $36 million to city government officials for redevelopment and added certain stipulations for “affordability and equity participation.”
“If the purchasers sold those parcels during the early years of their ownership, HUD would receive payment in recognition of the land value and funds provided by HUD to facilitate the redevelopment of the Uplands, as repayment of federal dollars invested,” the email said.
On Tuesday, a day after this story published, a representative from Bozzuto said the company has long been a champion for Baltimore and stands behind every community it builds.
Spokeswoman Chintimini Keith said Bozzuto takes pride in the Uplands homes — and that the concerns of these homeowners are isolated. “I urge you to speak with any of the other 175 residents who call The Uplands home, and I believe you will hear a very different story,” Keith said in an email.
She added that Bozzuto has not received complaints from Littlejohn or her neighbors in more than two years.
Records show at least $14 million in state bonds have been awarded this year for the project’s second phase. And Scott committed at least $12 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, intended as a strategic capital investment, to Uplands last year, according to the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs.
Pennrose, in an April news release, said the total project cost amounts to $237 million and will expand across 63 acres.
Littejohn and her neighbors said they have brought the problems to the attention of Bozzuto and Pennrose but have not been fully satisfied. When they contacted the window manufacturer, Jeld-Wen, they were told their homes’ measurements were incorrect and unable to be remediated by the manufacturer. And due to the mold, residents said they have developed headaches and allergy-like symptoms.
Keith, from Bozzuto, said all of Littlejohn’s concerns have been addressed, including those submitted after the home warranty period expired “because we as a company will always strive to do what’s right for the residents of our communities.”
Still, residents said the fixes offered by Bozzuto and others haven’t gone far enough.
“It’s not safe for us to be here,” said Kim Stephens, who moved to Uplands from Prince George’s County with her husband and daughter about five years ago. She, Woodhouse and Littlejohn have had dehumidifiers installed in their homes at no cost after relaying their concerns to Bozzuto — but they worry the damage to their health may have lasting implications.
Woodhouse went through arbitration over his floors, but arbitrators sided with Bozzuto — evidence, Bozzuto’s Keith said, that the floors were built up to code. If he were to have the floors fixed, he said it would cost him an additional $5,000 on top of the $10,000 upcharge he already paid for hardwood.
Littlejohn said she contacted Bozzuto’s home warranty program for help with the mold remediation and went to an independent foundation inspector for the foundational problems. An inspection report completed by McLaren Technical Services Inc. at Littlejohn’s home found “significant” grade drops along the side of the home, several hairline cracks in the basement drywall and evidence of mold remediation in the bathroom. The inspector also noted “creaking” floors that sloped, cracks in the garage and cracks where a wall meets the underside of the ceiling.
“It is our understanding that the home is only 2 to 3 years old,” the inspector wrote in the June 2020 field report. The McLaren inspector did not respond to a request for follow-up comment from The Banner.
It’s not clear how many Uplands residents signed contracts containing deed restrictions. In general, deed restrictions can be used to keep properties affordable for a set period of time, especially those sold below market value.
According to a copy of Littlejohn’s grant agreement from HUD, the “purchasers” also are barred from refinancing the property for the first 10 years unless they secure written approval from the city and agree to use the refinancing proceeds for a designated purpose, such as for property improvements, education of an immediate family member or medical reasons.
Stephens, whose deed also contains the restrictions, said she moved to Uplands after seeing an advertisement for the community. She appreciated the affordability and the prospect of having a garage.
At the time, she also considered buying a home in Glen Burnie, where she would have spent about $40,000 more. She said she wished she knew then what she knows now.
“Yeah, I made a mistake,” Stephens said. “I regret it. I don’t regret having great neighbors, and I’ve considered moving. But the interest rates are too high now.”
Already, Stephens has had her roof replaced with help from a $10,000 state grant; she said the shingles would sometimes blow off the house and onto the sidewalk. She’s taken note of faulty electrical work, poor insulation and problems with the heat and air. And like Littlejohn and Woodhouse, the family hears the windows shake whenever there’s a breeze.
“I thought it was my late father’s spirit,” she said, until realizing other neighbors were experiencing the same nuisance. “It feels like there’s a ghost in the room.”
Next door, Woodhouse — who said he became a home inspection expert “on the fly” while balancing a full-time job — said he feels he has nowhere left to turn.
“Between the the federal, state and city government, this has received millions, and yet there’s no accountability or vehicle to hold them accountable,” he said. “And they’re still building! So people need to know.”