Baltimore’s government-subsidized public housing sites are failing federal inspections at a higher rate than the national average, a Banner analysis of inspection records found.

The most recent round of Real Estate Assessment Center Inspections, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to assess the quality and safety of housing, revealed a number of health and safety violations inside of Baltimore’s conventional public housing stock, including cockroaches, fire safety hazards and mold and mildew.

One in three properties failed their most recent inspections, earning below 60 points out of 100, the threshold the federal housing agency deems a failing grade. A majority of the remaining properties teetered on the edge of failure, coming within ten points or fewer of a failing score. Some properties received passing scores despite multiple serious health and safety issues noted on their inspection records, including fire hazards, missing or obstructed exit and entry routes, and vermin and rodents.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which owns and manages public housing in Baltimore, noted in a statement to The Banner that most of its properties received a passing grade.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Of the 27 HABC properties, 9 failed inspections and ten others nearly failed.

A main driver of Baltimore’s higher-than-average failure rate could be HUD’s massive capital backlog, or a shortage of federal funds housing authorities such as the city’s need to make repairs and improvements to ailing properties. The federal government values the backlog at over $50 billion — an estimate others have called an undercount of as much as $40 billion.

Another problem could pertain to the difficulty in finding new, compliant and affordable living quarters as Maryland experiences historic deficits in housing, especially those on the lowest end of the cost spectrum.

“We could and have brought actions to repair conditions, but the risk in some cases is that the action could result in closing these buildings down,” said Gregory Countess, advocacy director for Housing and Community Development at Maryland Legal Aid, who represents public housing tenant councils. “The question is: Where do people go to live? How do we stop displacement even if only a small number of residents are displaced?”

A historic lifeline

Federally subsidized public housing is a critical source of affordable housing, especially in Baltimore, a city where 1 in 5 residents lives below the poverty line.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Amid the Great Depression, the federal government sought to provide relief to the nation’s poorest citizens in the form of low-income housing that could be managed by local public housing agencies. Huge complexes were built, but they were found to perpetuate and even exacerbate segregation. New construction of these complexes stopped in the 1970s and has been more limited in the decades since, with much of the federal housing subsidies shifting to housing vouchers.

Still, many of the original complexes built during the postwar period exist and remain a popular option for people with limited means.

“Public housing provides a lot of stability for [low-income] families that enables them to reinvest some of the savings that they would have in their housing expenses into other areas, whether it be their health care expenses, their food costs and investment in the future education of their children,” said Kelly McElwain of the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation

The Baltimore metro area currently faces a shortage of over 67,000 affordable rental homes, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And Maryland’s total housing supply shortage could be as high as 150,000 units.

Last August, when HABC opened to applications for the first time in four years, the department added nearly 30,000 applicants to its waiting list. Getting off the waiting list and into housing can take years. Waitlist applicants enter a lottery system after undergoing a screening.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Meanwhile, soaring rental rates have added an extra burden on Baltimore residents. State estimates found about half of all renters are cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on rent. Evictions in Maryland also have returned to pre-pandemic levels, which experts attribute to the end of emergency rental assistance and other financial resources meant to keep people housed during the initial months of the health crisis.

Some people wait decades to get off the waitlist and into a rental unit, said Korey Perrin, president of the Resident Advisory Board. The board represents most public housing developments and federally subsidized properties in Baltimore. Perrin lives in Douglas Homes and is also the president of that tenant council.

Perrin gave the housing authority credit for doing its best to respond to residents’ concerns, which includes everything from rodents and mice to bedbugs and water damage. The property managers take the inspection scores seriously, she said.

“They don’t want to get hit with that failing REAC inspection,” Perrin said. “Sometimes it can be stressful. Sometimes, you be on their time, and they be busy dealing with other developments.”

The violations

When HUD inspected Uptown Apartments in January last year, inspectors found that sprinkler heads in bedrooms, hallways and furnace closets in multiple buildings had been painted over. Fire alarm and sprinkler certifications were expired or missing. Some smoke detectors did not work.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Uptown Apartments still passed inspection, though.

Fire safety problems were a consistent theme in HUD’s most recent round of inspections. A Banner analysis of the National Housing Preservation Database found 88% of Baltimore’s public housing properties inspected between 2022 and 2023 had at least one missing or broken smoke detector — the second highest in the nation among cities with at least 10 public housing properties.

Smoke detectors are a good indicator of the overall health of the public housing in a city. According to a Banner analysis, there is a correlation between the percentage of properties in a city that were found to have at least one missing or broken smoke detector and the average score of the properties in that city.

Every property except one had an “exigent fire or safety hazard,” according to the Banner’s analysis of the housing database. That rate trailed only New York City and Jackson, Mississippi, among cities with at least 10 public housing properties.

Fires have long been considered a problem inside public housing facilities. Properties tend to be older and often lack modern fire safety features that can be expensive to implement for cash-strapped public housing authorities.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Federal law currently exempts homes built before 1992 from sprinkler requirements, meaning most public housing in Baltimore isn’t required to have it. In 2019, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith spearheaded a bill that would create a competitive grant program solely to provide funding to public housing authorities that retrofit older high-rise buildings with sprinkler systems. In a statement, Smith said she would continue to fight for the Public Housing Fire Safety Act, which has not passed.

While HUD requires properties found in violation of fire safety standards to correct them within 24 hours, some deficiencies, such as those affecting alarm systems, fire detectors, and sprinklers, can take longer and be more expensive.

“If a sprinkler head was painted over, then the sprinkler head is going to take a lot longer to activate, should there be a fire,” said Robert Marton, a safety expert who helped oversee public housing conditions in Miami Dade County for a decade. “When we would see stuff like that, we would recommend that they replace the sprinkler head completely.”

Four HABC properties inspected in 2022 and 2023 were missing sprinklers, had sprinkler systems that did not properly function, or were missing their sprinkler certificates.

Cockroaches also proved a prolific problem in Baltimore’s public housing units, according to The Banner’s analysis of inspection records. Inspections conducted in 2022 and 2023 uncovered evidence of roaches, including roaches inside kitchens, pantries, hallways and bedrooms. Roaches were found at nearly half of HABC properties inspected in 2022 and 2023, even some that ultimately passed HUD’s inspection.

Roaches were “crawling everywhere,” a HUD inspector noted as they surveyed a bedroom in HABC’s Albemarle Square on East Pratt Street in June 2022.

Cockroaches have been unwelcome invaders in Baltimore public housing going back decades. Their presence can create or worsen respiratory issues like asthma, especially in children, and contaminate food, dishes and surfaces.

“For sensitive people with asthma, eight units of cockroach allergen per gram of dust can trigger a reaction. ONE female cockroach will produce 1,500 units per day,” according to a HUD Integrated Pest Management presentation.

Other common problems noted in the reports include obstructed or missing accessibility routes; inoperable ground-fault circuit interrupters meant to protect residents from electrocution; broken door and window locks; and cracks and gaps in foundations.

Despite myriad problems, public housing is often higher quality than privately owned affordable units that do not undergo routine inspection, said Jonathan Wilson, deputy director at the National Center for Healthy Housing.

“We can do better,” Wilson said. “But if we lose [the property], the alternative is actually worse.”

What’s next?

Baltimore’s public housing won’t get another chance to improve on the next REAC inspection. Starting in the summer of last year, HUD began to transition to a new inspection protocol: The National Standards for the Physical Inspection of Real Estate.

The change comes after years of intense criticism of REAC standards from experts and watchdog groups.

In 2019, the Government Accountability Office, a federal government watchdog agency, published a report citing numerous potential problems with the REAC process, including a lack of proper vetting and training for prospective inspectors, inability to verify the accuracy of some findings, and outdated performance standards.

In a statement to The Banner, a HUD spokesperson said the new inspection system will implement “the most recent science” for health and safety in residential buildings. It will also update its standards in fire safety, carbon monoxide, water safety and other areas, the spokesperson said.

“It emphasizes the health and safety of residents in the places they spend the most time: their units,” they added.

The HUD spokesperson also noted that older properties tend to score lower on inspections, which could account for Baltimore’s higher rate of failure.

Representatives from the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, as well as the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, declined to comment, saying the city housing authority is responsible for its own inspections and maintenance.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City declined an interview request from The Banner. In a statement, a spokesperson said the agency strives to provide high-quality housing and is working to beef up its workforce.

“We know there’s always room for improvement,” the statement said. “And we are working with our residents to ensure we are providing a living environment they are proud to call home.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story attributed the the Banner’s analysis to “Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation” instead of the National Housing Preservation Database, a database maintained by PAHRC.