District 14 City Council Candidate David Harding on Housing

David Harding was the second District 14 candidate to respond to the questionnaire. His answers are below, with no edits:

1. Baltimore City has 30,000+ vacant homes. How do you intend to clean up blight in your district that isn’t a rehash or continuation of previous plans? And how do you propose to pay for your plan?

I support the residents of Poppleton who have been organizing to stop the spreading of the Biopark. And I would use the City Council office to encourage exactly that kind of organizing. It’s first of all, a fight to be able to stay in their homes – to not be pushed out. Keeping people in their homes stops blight. But it’s also an example of ordinary people standing up to powerful interests that suck the blood from the city. In this case, it’s the Blackstone Group. In March, the City Council voted to grant this billionaire company a 17.5 million dollar TIF for the Biopark.

I would do exactly the opposite in the City Council. Not only would I vote “no” to every TIF, PILOT, Enterprise Zone, and other form of corporate welfare. I would also publicize – actively — every slimy deal that the City Council is considering. I would do it quickly, so that the residents hear about it before the City Council vote is taken. And I would make all the resources of the City Council office available to residents who want to stand up, whether they live in District 14 or in other parts of the city.

Blight isn’t an accident. It’s a conscious policy decision. There’s an overall lack of enforcement against landlords, both for their vacant and their occupied properties. Neighborhoods are allowed to deteriorate. Then after they somehow “become” deteriorated, they are handed to a developer in the name of saving them. But those hundreds of millions of dollars that go to the developers could instead be used to hire directly. We’re never going to fix 30,000 vacant homes with a couple hundred employees. The city needs tens of thousands of employees. And it could hire that many, and with decent pay – with the money that now goes to developers.

2. The two fastest-growing income groups in Baltimore are those who earn 75,000 and up, and those who earn 25,000 and below. The middle class is stagnating, and struggling to afford rental housing. How do you propose to keep median-income renters from leaving the city without pushing them into homeownership they may not want or be able to afford?

You’re asking the wrong question. The right question is why the City Council allows wages that low in the first place. We all know that $12 an hour, or even $15 an hour can’t begin to pay the rent. The City Council could certainly take up the question of the minimum wage. But it hasn’t looked in that direction. Just like it continues to feed city tax breaks to companies that pay workers poverty wages, even while these same companies drive up the cost of housing.

The City Council could take a completely different approach by using city money to hire city employees at decent wages. It was mentioned in a recent City Paper column that in the past seven years, not one single student in the Reach Partnership High School trades program has been placed in a trade-related job. And yet it’s the city that owns more vacant properties than any individual landlord or LLC. The city could solve both problems by hiring these trade school graduates at decent wages. When people have money, they can spend it at stores, restaurants and other small businesses. When small businesses have customers, then they too can hire. The city itself could become an engine for economic growth — if it turned its budget priorities in a completely different direction.

3. Our Housing Authority has a decades-long reputation for corruption and incompetence at its top leadership tier. How do you plan to address this?

It’s not incompetence. It’s policy. The Housing Authority has been following in the footsteps of the City Council. The Housing Authority, for example, is selling off 40 percent of its housing stock to private developers. These fire-sales are happening at hundreds of millions of dollars below market value. Plus, the developers will get hundreds of millions of dollars of property tax breaks over decades. The deal was made in secret. Sun reporters only discovered it months later, after digging around for the records.

Is it corrupt? Absolutely! But not one shade different from what the City Council has approved, catering to every whim of developers. It was the City Council that approved a 40 million dollar tax break to Amazon, and approved a TIF of 70 million for Paterakis at Harbor Point. They gave away millions more for the Convention Center and the Casino. The City Council could have opposed all of these – and it chose not to. And now they’re working out the details of the TIF to Kevin Plank’s Port Covington. It’s a record setting request – over half a billion dollars. To put it in perspective, the entire 2015 operating budget of the city of Baltimore is only 2.2 billion.

I would oppose all these TIF’s which are a public subsidy to billionaires. TIF’s force the city to starve its operating budget – the part of the budget that serves ordinary people. The library branch closings in 2003, the fire station closings in 2012, the recreation center closings were all due supposed budget crises. Of course it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a death by a thousand cuts. The city closed ten neighborhood branch libraries and later opened one new “regional” library in Highlandtown. But the total library system operating budget is reduced. Schools lose their heat and it never gets fixed. Water pipes go yet another year without replacement and then break. Temporary city hiring freezes become virtually permanent. All to feed the unlimited appetite of a few billionaires who would dare to blackmail the city, threatening to take their business out of the city if they don’t get tax breaks. It’s a spending policy that puts Baltimore on a race to the bottom – a race to become the next major city to file for bankruptcy.

4. Its been said that Baltimore’s tax sale process is burdensome to seniors and low-income residents, forcing many out of homes. How do you plan to make this process easier for those who are struggling to pay for their water bills and property taxes, and how would you better structure the city’s tax sale process to ensure homes aren’t purchased and subsequently neglected?

You’re looking for a more gentle way to kick retirees to the street. I’m not. I’m opposed to tax sales on any owner-occupied property and would try to stop them on the City Council. Stopping them would be an immediate step the City Council could take to reduce blight.

Look what happened when RG Steel went for several years without paying its water bill, until the bill grew to seven million dollars. Did the city proceed with a tax sale? Think again! RG Steel walked away, leaving the city with the unpaid water bill, plus site cleanup costs of hundreds of millions of dollars.

And yet for residents, water bills have doubled in a couple years. Property tax bills for ordinary people have increased. When bills go up, and wages stay the same, it’s inevitable that some won’t be able to pay. And who is that likely to be? Those with disabled children, those whose retirements were stolen by Bethlehem Steel, General Motors, and Western Electric; those who may have worked their entire lives for the city but were denied a permanent job with benefits.

Already victims, the city will then victimize them further by selling that debt to an “investor” who will gouge them for additional interest and fees. A $500 city water bill turns into a $3,000 private debt with the threat of foreclosure. If they can’t pay it, they not only lose the roof over their head, but all the equity they’ve paid on the mortgage. The property ends up vacant. And that brings down the standard of living of the whole neighborhood.

5. If you plan to introduce a reduction in property taxes, please indicate that, but also indicate how you plan to make up for the lost revenue.

[Please note, Mr. Harding skipped this question entirely and offered no response.]

6. How do you propose enforcing Baltimore City’s inclusionary housing law?

I propose not to enforce it. It’s another law that was written by the developers, for the developers. It creates public housing, but not the kind of public housing we need. It creates publicly paid, luxury housing for the very wealthy. The number of so called “affordable” units the law created was 32. We need real public housing – housing that’s comfortable and affordable by a worker’s standard.

7. Is there anything else voters should know about your approach to housing in District 14?

I understand that one person, or even a couple people on the City Council can’t take down the developers and the big banks that are behind them. But the working people of Baltimore have every reason to stand up against these billionaires who are parasites on the city. Working people have been living in the city, paying taxes here, paying their rent and mortgage, making the city run for decades – for generations. They have every reason to stay. They have every reason to stand up against anyone who would try to push them out. And I would use the City Council office to support every fight, to give out all the information possible, and to open up the office for their use to organize.

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