A vacant unit that sits next to an occupied one has no working locks, allowing access to whoever wants to use it and causing anxiety for residents living next door. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)

Residents of the Gilmor Homes housing project face long waits for maintenance repairs to serious issues from heaters malfunctioning during winter, to holes in ceilings caused by water damage from leaking pipes, to what appears to be visible mold growth inside units—not to mention the pest and rodent problems residents often have to address on their own as best they can.

Residents report waiting months or years for repairs, and a number of women residents say they have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances and even groping when trying to make maintenance requests, fueling a perception that the only way to receive timely repairs is in exchange for sexual favors.

One resident, who gave the name Crystal, says she moved into the West Baltimore housing complex this past January, only to find that her living room heater leaked water into the room and could not be kept on. Her bedroom heater did not work at all. Making matters worse, her living room windows did not seal properly, allowing cold air to seep into the unit during what was a particularly cold February in Baltimore.

“It got really really bad,” said Crystal of her stay in Gilmor this past winter. “It was really cold to the point where . . . my friend actually bought me a heater so I could stay warm but I was still cold because it’s a little space heater.”

According to Crystal, only her windows have been fixed since she moved in a little over six months ago.

“It’s been a long time with nothing done,” said Crystal of maintenance’s response to her various issues at the complex. “Here it is July and I still haven’t had any done.”

But Crystal is relatively lucky, having only had to wait six months so far, even if only because that has been the length of her entire stay in Gilmor. Residents who have lived there for more time report experiencing even longer wait times for service requests.

“The first couple of years , they came out, they were fixing things,” said Juselle Short, who has lived in Gilmor for almost six years, of maintenance responses.  “But I’d say within the last two years, nothing is getting done. Nothing. You put in maintenance order, maintenance order, maintenance order, they don’t come out and fix anything.”

In an interview with the AFRO conducted last October, Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano explained that decades of underfunding federal housing authorities by Congress has left Baltimore’s public housing stock with over $800 million worth of capital improvement needs (repairs to the physical structures), while receiving something in the area of $4 million annually with which to address it. Those numbers hardly add up, and it has left Housing with resources unequal to the task while buildings continue to fall into further disrepair.

“What we end up doing is a lot of patchwork repairs, just to hold things together,” said Graziano during that interview.

But ‘hold things together’ is almost generous in light of the conditions in Gilmor Homes. Take, for example, Victoria Smith, who described her experience of last winter in a unit whose rear door, located in the main bedroom, does not seal properly.

“It was real bad because cold air was coming in, and you could hear the rats cutting from the outside. And the mold got bad because painted over it, and once the paint got over it, you could see the mold . When you try to open the door you have to go on the outside of the door and push it in, and the middle of my wall, it just comes out . You have to push the wall back in,” said Smith, who also says the unit had issues with mice and bed bugs which she had to address herself.

To Short, the conditions in Gilmor Homes send a message that nobody cares about the plight of those in her position.

Another resident, Karen (a pseudonym granted so she would speak freely about the sexual harassment she’s received from maintenance workers at the complex) expressed a similar sentiment.

Karen said she stopped making maintenance requests about five years ago, having lived in Gilmor for about seven.  Not only do requests for service go unfulfilled, but she has faced sexual harassment when approaching maintenance workers about repairs.

“I would ask if could fix my ceiling or things like that, and he’d be like, ‘Turn around. Your butt looking fat, you’re getting thick,’ or something like that.  ‘You’re looking good’—alright compliments are cool but you take things too far. I’m asking you about my ceiling and you’re worrying about my butt. That doesn’t mix,” said Karen.

Another resident, Rachel (also a pseudonym granted for the same reason) says she had a similar experience.

“The first time I had maintenance come to my house, one of the maintenance men, when he was leaving my house, he asked could he come back after he got off work in an hour to have a date with me. And I didn’t understand what he said and he kept pressing up against my breast, and he kept pressing me that he wanted to date me. And when I called to all they said was, ‘when you call to put a work order in, request that he doesn’t come to your house,’” said Rachel, who lives with her two children in a one bedroom unit with water damage to the walls, what appears to be mold growing behind the plastic baseboard as a result of the damage, broken heaters in the living room and bathroom, windows that do not lock and have caused her home to be broken into twice, as well as cockroaches and other pests.

Rachel says other residents have told her that this sort of harassment has been going on for years. The poor conditions inside the units, combined with the inability of maintenance to keep up with the repairs (or conduct any at all), has left women vulnerable to this sort of sexual aggression.

Felicia (pseudonym again) says a maintenance worker once rubbed himself against her backside when she went to place a work order, and that she no longer goes down to the maintenance office to do so.

“I didn’t like that, but, you know, what can I do?” said Felicia, who says she has heard that residents willing to trade sexual favors are more likely to receive timely service for their maintenance issues. It is a perception that others living in Gilmor, and who spoke to the AFRO, share.

Felicia’s rhetorical question of ‘what can I do?’ speaks to a basic problem, articulated by Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United, who has been working in Gilmor for almost two months to mobilize residents to fight for better living conditions—and who alerted the AFRO to the problems in the units.

“Most of the residents in Gilmor Homes right now are living in sub-standard, sub-healthy conditions, because they have to, not because they want to,” said Hopkins.

The AFRO reached out to both Baltimore Housing (via email), and the maintenance office at Gilmor Homes (in person, twice), for comment, but neither replied or commented prior to publication. Maintenance head Joshua Johnson declined to address the timeliness of repairs, or the allegations of sexual harassment when asked.