District 4 City Council Candidate Bill Henry on Housing

Bill Henry, the incumbent Councilman for District 4, was the second to respond to our questionnaire. His answers appear 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?

We live in a City with only two-thirds of the population we had half-a-century ago, but with much of the same infrastructure. There are square blocks of houses all over the City that are mostly vacant and abandoned; the recent foreclosure crisis has now also increased the inventory of vacants scattered throughout the City in otherwise strong neighborhoods. While some of these will eventually be rehabbed through the City’s “Vacants to Value” effort, no matter how much the economy turns around, Baltimore Housing’s own estimates are that about 10,000 of them will probably never attract the needed combination of financing, subsidy, and vision. Silo-based thinking has kept us focused on many of these vacants as “houses that need to be fixed”, sending us down the futile path of subsidy in places where it would be wasted, when we should be thinking of them as – literally – “lots of opportunity.”

Coordinated policy making tells us to demolish most of these blights. Where consistent with a community-based master plan, remaining residents on mostly-blighted blocks could even be relocated nearby, so that whole blocks can be cleared. While some of these cleared lots might become strategic development opportunities for housing, retail, office space, or a combination, most of them could be small and medium-sized green spaces: community gardens, small play areas, or just well-maintained grass lots. Thousands of small and medium-sized green spaces would have not only the environmental benefits of increasing the City’s stormwater management capacity and tree canopy, but would also provide the economic benefit of increasing the value of the remaining nearby houses – which would now be park front property! – and by doing so, build our tax base. With targeted usage of community land trusts, existing low-income residents could share in that wealth creation, as the neighborhood becomes greener, literally and metaphorically.

Where to get the demolition funding from becomes the key question. One source, the State, is coming into focus with Governor Hogan’s recent commitment. Another source, long sought after but increasingly difficult to realize given the climate in Washington, would be substantial short-term increases in community development block grant funding specifically for the purpose of demolishing vacants. A third source would be a process allowing developers to buy stormwater management credits from the City in lieu of building expensive and space-intensive management practices on-site. If this process could be designed to ensure that it would not be abused in a way that was environmentally unsound, it would be a tremendous win-win for all involved.

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 in Baltimore 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?

After youth development, affordable housing may be the issue I have spent the most time on in the City Council. Having come to the Council from eight years in community development, I am well-versed in the state of the housing market in Baltimore City. Along those lines, I would suggest a re-framing; the problem is not a lack of affordable housing – the problem is that too much of the affordable housing in Baltimore City is crappy and you wouldn’t want to live in it.

I have spent the last eighteen months in conversations with various stakeholders on how best to both reform our largely-ineffective Inclusionary Housing program and better address the issue of affordable housing in Baltimore City. One of my hopes is to open the program up to providing incentives for improving and reinvesting in some of the City’s existing affordable housing, as well as providing inclusive units among some of the new housing developments. I am currently chairing a task force dedicated to this issue and intend to recommend changes to the law before the end of this term.

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?

Part of the problem is that the Housing Authority is not actually part of Baltimore City government. The five members of HABC’s Board of Commissioners – which sets policy guidelines on all key operational and financial issues needed to maintain the Authority’s conventional public housing units, rehabilitated housing, and Section 8 certificates and vouchers – are appointed solely by the Mayor, without the public confirmation process by the City Council that is required by all City government boards and commissions. For the last forty years or so, the Commissioner of the City’s Housing & Community Development Department has simultaneously served as the Executive Director of the HABC, but while the roles are joined in one person, they are still kept legally separate in many key ways. The City Council does publically confirm the Commissioner, but we have no oversight powers over the Authority itself; the City Council does not have oversight of the HABC budget, nor do we even tacitly approve it.

Given that the Housing Authority was set up by the state legislature to be an arm of the federal government – embedded in Baltimore City – we need the acceptance and assistance of our state and federal partners to either put the Housing Authority fully under the control of the Mayor and City Council, or to set up a separate system under which other elected officials – either state or federal – take appropriate responsibility for an entity over which the City Council currently has absolutely no legal authority.

4. It’s been said that Baltimore’s tax sale process is burdensome to seniors and low-income residents, forcing many out of their 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?

I’m currently working on water affordability legislation which would ease some of the burden on seniors, veterans, and other low-income residents. I agree that the tax sale process is awful – and heavily biased towards speculators – but, as with a number of other issues which people think of as “City problems”, it’s governed largely by state law, so we will need to work with our state delegation to better structure the process.

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.

I have no immediate plans to introduce a reduction; such reductions are rarely initiated by the Council, since they are usually paired with the Mayor’s budget proposal, given the prominent role that property tax revenue plays in the annual budget.

What I have advocated for is to be more selective in our use of tax credits. Many of our tax credits serve the stated objective purpose of promoting specific development and reinvestment in Baltimore City, such as the Historic tax credit and the New Construction tax credit. Others are more political in nature, reducing the tax burden on long-time owner occupiers – who tend to make up the bulk of the voters – but not doing anything to help renters, or those looking to build the City’s tax base through commercial or multi-family residential re-investment.

The Targeted Homeowners Tax Credit, for example, which is the mechanism that the current Administration has been using to reduce our tax burden, is projected to reduce the “effective” tax rate by $0.20 as of 2020…for owner-occupiers only. The same revenue reduction would allow us to simply reduce the actual tax rate by $0.12 for everyone, which would seem to be a fairer and more productive approach.

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

The changes I expect the Council’s task force on inclusionary and affordable housing to propose will almost certainly include a stronger board, with greater oversight powers over the program, but enforcement is a tricky issue for legislators – by definition, the executive branch is charged with enforcing the laws written and passed by the legislative branch. The best way to enforce the law will be to elect a mayor who is actually invested in it.

7. Is there anything else voters should know about your approach to housing in District 4?

Housing is an important issue in my district – both in terms of providing quality housing for all of our residents and dealing with the houses that are vacant, and in some cases blighted. I’ve talked a bit about how to provide more affordable housing, and what to do about the houses that can’t be renovated, but we also have to deal with the vacants that the City didn’t even have on its radar screen.

To most of us, a vacant house is one that no one is living in, at least not legally. Until a year or so ago, to the City, a house was only vacant if it was open to casual entry – meaning that ground floor doors or windows had to be open – otherwise, it was considered “unoccupied” which kept the City from bringing the full weight of its citation and receivership powers to bear on the potential problem. Thanks to legislation I passed, exterior code violations – trash in the yard, hanging cornice, missing handrail – can now trigger a vacant house notice. This wasn’t easy; for years, the category of “unoccupied” has allowed the City to claim fewer actual “vacant” houses than we really had and no one wanted to have to be there when the number of vacants went up. From my perspective though, given that these houses often end up as hideouts for criminals and shielded spaces for illegal drug transactions and use, it was better to acknowledge them and work on them, than to continue to ignore them.

Let me tell you two more things about housing, crime, and drugs: 1) these issues are all interconnected and 2) the long term solution starts with our kids.

If we give our kids a good start – where they live in homes that aren’t filled with lead, and are kept up to code, where they attend school consistently and get a good education, in well-built, properly-maintained schools, and are provided with Pre-K, meaningful, enrichment opportunities, both after-school and during the summer – they will have a much better chance to finish school and get a job. Kids who grow up and get a job are more likely to be able to afford a house…which creates more demand for renovating some of our vacants. And it all starts with putting more resources into youth development. It all starts with our kids.

Frederick Douglass said “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” It’s also cheaper. Wouldn’t you rather have your city invest a couple hundred million dollars more into giving our children a chance to succeed early – providing them with better schools, safer homes, cleaner neighborhoods, and more recreational opportunities, so that they’re much less likely to become the criminals that we’re already spending almost half-a-billion dollars each year to police?

Baltimore is where I’m from and I want it to be better. That’s why I’ve spent the last eight years fighting to make sure that we create a stronger 4th district – and a stronger Baltimore – and with the help of my neighbors, I can continue to fight that fight for four more years.