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Joe Surkiewicz: BNI celebrates two anniversaries

How best to celebrate 55 years of providing equal opportunity for people to live where they choose?

For Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that promotes justice in housing throughout Maryland, it includes invoking the spirit of James Rouse at an event at Cross Keys, the first planned community built by the nationally renowned developer.

“Mr. Rouse was a visionary in so many ways,” said BNI Executive Director Robert Strupp. “Even before constructing well-known local projects like Harborplace and Columbia, Mr. Rouse’s goal of diverse and sustainable communities was evidenced by this little known fact: James Rouse, along with fellow Baltimoreans Melvin J. Sykes, Sydney Hollander Jr. and others, had the foresight to create BNI in 1959.”

The May 21 annual meeting and event also will mark the 100th anniversary year of the birth of Rouse, who was a life-long promoter of housing justice.

“What’s relevant about Rouse today is that, at our founding, he said concentrations of poverty would cause economic problems,” Strupp said. “He saw that it was a problem. He was an early promoter of economic opportunity. He was a leader in the 1950s of the concept of people of all races living together — that there should be no widespread concentration of poverty.”

The evening event at the Radisson Cross Keys will feature Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano as keynote speaker. Live music will be provided by classical violinist and singer Tona Brown, a former Baltimore resident.

A film screening at the Radisson before the event will focus on a growing problem: consumer fraud against the elderly. The showing of “Fleeced,” produced by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, is cosponsored by BNI and the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition.

Strupp was quick to point out that the film isn’t being screened just because of his cameo appearance.

“The film does a phenomenal job showing fraud against the elderly, which gives rise to a discussion to expanding fair housing protection for seniors,” he said. “Baltimore City, Baltimore County and a few other jurisdictions already have it, but not at the state or national level. It frequently includes housing issues.”

Seniors are frequently preyed upon in a number ways, including home improvement scammers, Strupp said: “They will say you need a new roof that you really don’t need. Expanding legal protections would be an additional deterrent to that kind of bad conduct, which is housing-related and tied to lending,” Strupp said.

It’s a problem that’s under the radar and there’s not much education about it, he added: “It’s also complex. People are embarrassed to talk about being the victim of a scam, which undermines the independence of seniors.”

Most of BNI’s work today is not exclusively focused around race-based discrimination. In fact, the leading bases for complaint today are discrimination based on disability and familial status. Yet, Strupp pointed out, housing discrimination hasn’t gone away.

“Today, despite laws prohibiting discrimination, such practices persist in a variety of forms, blatant and subtle,” he said. “BNI sees violations predicated on race, color or national origin, gender, religion, familial status or disability, which are all prohibited by the federal Fair Housing Act, as well laws adopted at the state or local level.”

Maryland state law, for example, protects against housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and marital status, and the 2014 General Assembly adopted protection based on gender identity, now awaiting the governor’s signature.

Most people, as well as programs like BNI, work in “silos,” where major problems are dealt with one-at-a time, Strupp said. Visionaries, however, look at the bigger picture.

“It is worth noting that Mr. Rouse addressed more than just housing itself, by also focusing on job training, crime prevention, education and, in another sign of being ahead of his time, health care,” Strupp said.

“It was Mr. Rouse’s conviction ‘that we cannot seriously improve the lives of the people at the bottom of our society today unless we do all these things at one time… it is my conviction that it is far easier to do that all at one time than it is to approach the problems by the single-shot approach.’

“Clearly,” Strupp concluded, “55 years after BNI’s beginning, we still have work to do.”

“Fleeced” will be screened at 2:30, followed by a workshop on the movie. Admission to the movie is free.

The event is from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tickets for the event are $55 and include hors d’oeuvres, dessert, an open bar, and a silent auction. For more information, call (410) 243-4468. To purchase tickets, go to http://www.bni-maryland.org/.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.