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Former mayor under attack at retirement home

By Lisa Brody

Former Birmingham Mayor Dorothy Conrad long advocated for those who couldn't speak up for themselves, as well as being a voice for the city. Now, she is in danger of losing her living space for her traditional outspokenness.

Conrad, now 88, long lived on the east side of the city in her own home. After her husband passed away, she sold the house and moved into Baldwin House, an independent senior living facility at 200 Chester Street – one which she once had a hand in helping to establish.

Today, Baldwin House, a senior housing facility in the center of downtown Birmingham, is an iconic part of the community. The Baldwin House is a facility for independent living which permits modest aging in place for seniors with 131 apartments, 40 percent of which must be reserved for low-income residents. It was envisioned as a facility for elders as they should be treated in their sunset years. It is a home to them, a non-denominational enclave which provides two cooked meals a day at a sit-down dining room, offers weekly housekeeping services, workout facilities on each floor, a multi-purpose room for social activities and parties, a library well-stocked with contemporary and classic literature, movies, computers with internet access and transportation to events and local markets and stores.

Yet, originally, in the 1970s and early 1980s, many members of the community fought its creation and it was only due to a federal lawsuit, which the city lost, that it stands today. As Downtown Newsmagazine wrote in a longform article in January 2013, “A noble effort by leaders of four Birmingham churches in the mid-1970s to provide affordable and convenient housing for seniors within and around the community led to divisiveness within this once staid city, pitting do-gooders against do-gooders, neighbors against neighbors, recalls of local elected city officials, and set the stage for a major federal lawsuit against Birmingham which branded the city and its residents, once safe and secure as an enclave in which residents were sure was as a good place to live and raise their family as any in the country, as racists.”

A group of women representing a consortium of four Birmingham churches worked in 1975 to create affordable housing for local seniors, and it was determined the site of the former Baldwin School in downtown Birmingham was an ideal site. The Birmingham City Commission chose their proposal out of eight others to proceed, which one of the group's founders told Downtown Newsmagazine in 2013 that she believed they were picked because “we were a community of churches from within the city limits. At the time they wanted it sponsored by churches in the city limit. At that time, we probably weren't non-profit. We were looking for financing at HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and Section 8 financing.”

Dorothy Conrad sat on the city commission at the time, and was the city's mayor. While initially the plan was favored, suddenly, in 1977, with planning in its early stages, “All of a sudden a very boisterous group of people began showing up at meetings,” recalled Conrad. “They started to hold mass meetings. They even bussed in people.”

They were called The Patriots.

Suddenly, members of the Patriot group were on the commission, and Conrad and her fellow supporters on the commission were ousted.

The feds and FBI investigated the commission ouster amid other issues, and in 1982, in United States v. City of Birmingham, the Department of Justice sued the city, alleging Birmingham had violated the Fair Housing Act by intentional and purposeful racial discrimination. The court case lasted 26 months, with numerous residents, including Conrad, testifying.

While officially out of office, Conrad continued to attend city commission meetings until very recently due to her age and health – and continued to speak up on issues and hold staff and elected officials to task. Fast forward to her residency at Baldwin House – which is in flux as Conrad has had a few “run ins” she said, with Tina Marzoff, the manager of Baldwin House, which since 2021 is owned by a local group that has a chain of retirement homes in the state.

“No one can do anything without her approval. One time it was about distributing literature. I and a few others organized a residents group. She has prevented us from meeting or putting anything under doors,” Conrad said. She said she did not believe there was anything in writing in her lease that prevents anyone from meeting as a residents group.

A bigger issue is likely not congregating as residents, but Conrad alerting the city of Birmingham to violation of a 1994 agreement between the city and Baldwin House. In his city manager's report included in the city commission packet for Monday, July 25, Tom Markus wrote, “In 1990, the city and Baldwin House entered into an agreement that provided 69 parking spaces free of charge in the Chester structure for the exclusive use of Baldwin House tenants and their guests. Complaints were made that Baldwin House was not only charging residents directly for the use of these City provided parking spaces, but were charging residents almost double ($90) the rate that members of the public pay ($50) for monthly parking permits. In addition, complaints were also made indicating that Baldwin House was allowing employees and contract workers to use the parking spaces for free, which is not what the agreement provided for.”

Markus has directed attorney Mary Kucharek to review the 1990 parking agreement and determine if there has been a breach of contract by Baldwin House, and if so, if legal action is required.

In September, Conrad said she and several others were presented with lease renewals, inclusive of rent increases, which she does not object to. However, she noted in the lease there is an area on parking that was “blurred out,” about which she raised questions. Her lease was pulled, and on September 17, she received a letter notifying her that Baldwin House was not renewing her lease and she had 30 days to vacate.

After publicity on her case, Conrad has received a new lease agreement, which she said she is contemplating.

“Settlement discussions are ongoing. We are working on resolving this so Dorothy can stay in her home,” said Conrad's attorney, Joe Wloszek of Hirzel Law, PLC. “She stands up for when a wrong is being committed.”

“In September 2022, Baldwin House asked all residents to sign new leases because some updates had been made to the language in the lease. For every resident who did not own a car, including Dorothy Conrad, Baldwin House wrote in “N/A” on the lease to reflect that the resident did not have a parking pass through Baldwin House, and to reflect that the issue of how Baldwin House parking passes will be used in the future remained an ongoing discussion with the city of Birmingham. Ms. Conrad was the only resident who refused to sign the lease,” said Mort Meisner, spokesperson for Baldwin House. “Through her attorney, Baldwin House has offered Ms. Conrad another opportunity to sign the lease that was presented to her in September.”

For her part, Conrad said would prefer to stay in Baldwin House.

“I have a long history here,” she noted. “The whole thing has been very upsetting, but I do admit to being very outspoken on certain things.”

Wloszek said it concerns him about what it could be saying about those who perhaps do not, or cannot, speak out. “When you have someone with that pedigree, and then this is happening – what is happening to anyone else? The question is – we don't like you so you have to leave? As an attorney, it appears as retaliatory eviction.”

However, Wloszek noted, “It's heartening to see the support this issue has received.”

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