Because I made a resolution that 2015 will be the Year of the Neighborhoods, I’d like to ask the City Council and the mayor to join me by making their own resolution to commit the attention and money necessary toward the goal of affordable housing for Baltimore’s working families. Let’s resolve to work together and clean up our city’s vulnerable neighborhoods by instituting a program where middle-income affordable rental housing can coexist with homeowner-occupied homes.
Baltimore has a median income of approximately $40,000 and a per-capita income of less than $25,000 (compared to the state median income of almost $74,000 and per-capita income of almost $37,000), yet “affordable” housing rental rates are based on a percentage of the Metropolitan Statistical Area median income, set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This number does not take into account the local economic climate of each municipality, and therefore sets a “fair market” rent that is out of reach of most working families that earn close to, or even above, the median income. And many of those families do not qualify for subsidized housing, not that we have much of it available anyway. We must shore up our lower-middle and middle class in order to create a broader tax base. Otherwise, we can expect more attempts by the city to cut services such as the fire department, rec centers, parks, and trash collection.
The city has focused on downtown and our higher-income neighborhoods, at great taxpayer expense. Now we need to focus time and attention—and yes, money—on our struggling neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore, neighborhoods where people are born, people die, where people celebrate the best and mourn the worst moments of their lives. Many of our communities are dying, and many of them are worth saving. Their proximity to downtown, their architecture, their sense of community despite being ignored by the rest of the city for so long—these things are worth celebrating and developing.
A partnership between Baltimore Develop-ment Corporation, Baltimore Housing, and large developers could make huge inroads into cleaning up our city’s marginal neighborhoods, and provide housing for low- to moderate-income working families. For every Harbor Point TIF and PILOT, a developer and the city should be required to spend a percentage, maybe 1 percent, of the total in a community that needs affordable housing. Once that neighborhood is stabilized, move onto the next. Making sure our working families have safe, affordable housing will increase the tax base and make our neighborhoods safer, making our city better in a way that’s sustainable.
The city created its Vacants to Value program in 2010, with much fanfare. However, research into who is purchasing the city-owned vacants paints a not-so-rosy picture. One of the largest “company” purchasers is the city’s Housing Authority. One of the largest individual purchasers is a disbarred attorney who testified in Federal Court that he and a group of other attorneys participated in a municipal auction bid-rigging scheme. Taxpayers cannot continue footing the bill for court proceedings and sham municipal auctions—we need to clear the way for honest businesses and honest individuals who want to call our city home.
We cannot allow the further destabilization of our neighborhoods and our tax base through city neglect and waste. We must resolve to change our way of thinking about these homes and these neighborhoods, in order to make our city safer and stronger – for all its residents.
Carol Ott is the Director of Housing Policy Watch.