People make much of the idea of “two cities” in Baltimore — one, affluent and white, and the other is usually labeled as poor and black. This view leaves out the third group: the folks, black and white, who earn around the city’s median income of $40,000 or so, and have solid potential to be upwardly mobile over the long term. You know — the working families who don’t consider themselves rich or poor, just…somewhere in the middle trying to get by. They don’t qualify for housing assistance, and even if they did — they probably wouldn’t apply (who has the time to hold down a full-time job, run a household, raise kids or take care of elderly parents or an ailing spouse, and commit to the arduous process of applying for social services?), and there isn’t a whole lot of moderate-income housing for them anyway.
It’s not like I’m saying anything I haven’t said a million times before, and won’t keep saying — but I have to wonder why, in a city with so much potential safe and affordable housing — we have so little of it.
One of the reasons is the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This is the agency in charge of setting what they deem a “Fair Market Rent (FMR) for every Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Our MSA includes Towson, Columbia, and all the other wealthy suburbs in between. The idea is to set the FMR at a level that would allow low- and very low-income renters who receive Section 8/Housing Choice Vouchers to move from their neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into areas of prosperity (and higher rents). This is problematic on multiple levels:
- Most poor people, through either a lack of means or a desire to stay near jobs, family, and other support systems, don’t actually move far away if at all. It’s hard to leave family support and friends, particularly if a low-income family relies on family and friends for childcare and/or transportation. Also, many wealthier suburbs (and even wealthier city neighborhoods) don’t have adequate or reliable public transit, making it hard for low-income families to access jobs, childcare, doctors, or shopping.
- Because the FMR is based on a geographic area that includes wealthier suburbs, the FMR is unreasonably high in many of our moderate- and low-income neighborhoods. To ask someone earning the median, or just on either side of the median, to pay $1250 a month (approximate FMR for a two-bedroom house or apartment in the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson MSA) without housing assistance in many of our neighborhoods drives out the stabilizing force that moderate-income working families bring. It also drives away their current and future tax dollars, and consumer spending.
Many of our city’s neighborhoods, despite news and other reports to the contrary, are either stagnating, or they’re becoming even more concentrated areas of poverty, as more prosperous neighborhoods receive development projects and other attention from the State and City governments. (See concentrated poverty map again, to reiterate this point.) Oftentimes, this is due to investors snapping up cheap and foreclosed homes to flip and turn into Section 8 rentals. In Pigtown, one LLC flipped one block of homes to another LLC, for around $19,000 each, further destabilizing home prices. Inexplicably, one of the homes is now on the market for $174,000, when many homes on surrounding streets are on the market for far less. How long before this block of homes is turned into Section 8 rentals, if they don’t sell? Turning them into rentals those with moderate incomes could afford would be the better course of action — it would add stability to a floundering neighborhood, and could potentially raise property values as these renters turn into buyers.
From a 2003 National Housing Institute/Shelterforce article:
During the past decade, speculators saw an opportunity in Patterson Park – and in the loopholes of the voucher program. They found they could snap up vacant rowhouses for as little as $10,000, give them a fresh coat of paint, pass Section 8 inspection, and start to rake in vouchers worth $700 a month, much more than the rentals would be worth on the private market. As groups of out-of-town investors got in on the deal, Section 8 families flooded into as many as 700 of Patterson Park’s rowhouses. The neighborhood became visibly poorer and shabbier as the landlords ignored maintenance. “The people buying here were not experienced property managers,” Rutkowski says. “They were accountants and lawyers in the suburbs.”
While Patterson Park has improved considerably since 2003, it still struggles with investor-owned low-income housing. Something that could have alleviated current and past problems — mixed-income housing, and the stability that moderate-income earners bring to the table.
Some encouraging news was reported in this morning’s Baltimore Sun: One development near the biopark in West Baltimore will have 20% of its planned units set aside for moderate- and low-income tenants. Whether this plan comes to fruition or not — that remains to be seen.
Making affordable housing for working families a top priority of City and State government needs to happen. Our city cannot afford to be divided in three — it needs to come together to find real solutions that aren’t tied to nice-sounding theories and campaign contributions. Solid investments in our neighborhoods, a commitment to making Baltimore a liveable city, and reworking of HUD’s FMR would be a great start. Let’s make this happen in 2015 — together.