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Homelessness and Housing

Commentaryby Jeff Singer4:50 pmDec 15, 20170

Holiday Wish Part 2: That Baltimore’s leaders actually lead

A blueprint for tackling the deep-seated problems that have led to rampant homelessness

Above: About 30 people live in tents on Guilford Avenue a few blocks from City Hall. (Fern Shen)

The notion that Baltimore’s homelessness problem entails finding shelter for just 2,669 or 3,000 people neglects a fundamental issue:

That housing has become a commodity and left to itself, “the market” and “the private sector” cannot deliver a sufficient supply of this commodity.

The homelessness problem is more severe in the U.S. than in other advanced industrial economies because we have the smallest social (public) housing sector, the greatest income inequality, and the largest gap between incomes and housing market rates.

Holiday Wish Part 1: That Baltimore’s leaders tell the truth about the homeless crisis

Two simultaneous strategies are required: Improving the effective demand for housing by raising wages and increasing the supply of low-cost housing through a variety of subsidies.

It is necessary to increase the income and wealth of the lowest fifth of our population.

These are the young families, seniors and the marginally employed who are most likely to become homeless because they have no assets of their own (and no access to family and friends with sufficient assets) to supplement their inadequate incomes.

Strategies to increase inadequate incomes include:

  • The $15/hour minimum wage that Mayor Catherine Pugh vetoed. Here is where we can see how serious she is about ending homelessness (as well as keeping a campaign promise).
  • Robust disability assistance programs that provide sufficient income to afford housing. Currently federal disability assistance is 25% short of the rent for an efficiency apartment.
  • Public works programs that employ marginalized individuals who have difficulty obtaining employment.

Supply strategies could include:

  • Building a robust public housing sector and transfer funding from the Housing Choice voucher program to the public housing program. The dollars that currently create profits for landlords can be more effectively used to build and maintain housing owned by all of us, as well as to provide well-paying union jobs, with concomitant protections and benefits for administrative and maintenance staff, who have been so badly treated by the previous Baltimore Housing leadership.
  • Revising Baltimore’s Inclusionary Housing ordinance, which is one of the least effective of 450 such programs in the U.S. During the 10 years that the ordinance has been in effect, Baltimore has created 32 units of housing – and not a single one of those units has housed an impoverished household. The Inclusionary Housing Fund has been “broke” for the last three years. City Council President Bernard C. Young, who championed the original law, knows this, but has done little to fix it.
  • Mandating developers to include significant numbers of housing units affordable to households with incomes below 30% of AMI. Developers at Harbor East, Harbor Point, and Stadium Square – granted millions of dollars in TIFs, PILOTs, roadway improvements and other public subsidies – have been allowed plenty of “wiggle room” to evade and delay affordable housing. This misuse of taxpayer money must stop.
  • Issuing General Obligation (GO) bonds to create affordable housing, preferably owned by the citizenry and managed democratically by the tenants. During her campaign for mayor, Pugh endorsed Baltimore Housing Roundtable’s  20/20 Plan to authorize $40 million in GO funds for affordable housing and vacant house deconstruction. As late as last month, she said she supports the plan’s “vision.” Yet at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting, Pugh, Council President Young and Comptroller Joan Pratt allotted just $10 million in 2020 and 2021 GO funding for affordable housing.
  • Establishing Community Land Trusts to intervene in the housing market and improve affordability to families without the threat of “eviction by gentrification.”

An integrated homeless and housing strategy should also employ individuals who have experienced homelessness to deconstruct and rehabilitate the city’s tens of thousands of vacant housing units.

For decades every Baltimore homelessness plan has included a proposal to employ the unskilled. This approach will not only increase the supply of affordable housing, but will enhance the income of marginalized and unemployed or underemployed persons.

Union apprenticeship programs ought to be integrated into these efforts so the workforce has a path forward and can gain the skills and confidence to become productive members of the community.

 Why We Must Act

Baltimore is the only East Coast city without a comprehensive housing plan.

We need leaders to create and deploy one in a democratic and participatory manner.

And it is time for citizens to determine the cost of housing our neighbors rather than absentee landlords and abstract market forces.

Tackling Baltimore’s homeless problem is likely to cost far more than the $350 million figure that Mayor Pugh recently tossed out so casually.

Such money will not be raised solely by the private and philanthropic sectors. Rather, it will flow from our collective willpower to create a city in which meeting human needs, rather than satisfying private profits, is the prime directive.
Jeff Singer has been working on homelessness issues in Baltimore for more than 40 years, first at the Department of Social Services, then at Health Care for the Homeless, where he was president and CEO. He now teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and can be reached at  jeff.singer@ssw.umaryland.edu

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