Ad­vo­cates seek trust fund to boost af­ford­able hous­ing

City char­ter amend­ment on Nov. bal­lot; groups seek money to fill it

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Yvonne Wenger

Bal­ti­more vot­ers will be asked in Novem­ber to ap­prove the cre­ation of a trust fund to de­velop and main­tain hous­ing that ex­tremely low-in­come res­i­dents can af­ford. But that is only a first step. If the fund were ap­proved, ad­vo­cates still would have to per­suade city of­fi­cials to put money into it.

A coali­tion of af­ford­able-hous­ing ac­tivists is look­ing for po­ten­tial sources of rev­enue. As they work to per­suade vot­ers to ap­prove the trust fund, they are also float­ing ideas such as a new tax on va­ca­tion ren­tals and ded­i­cat­ing pub­lic bonds to fill it.

Odette Ramos, a chief backer of the pro­posed char­ter amend­ment, says the point of the fund would be to re­duce the num­ber of home­less peo­ple in Bal­ti­more and to help more fam­i­lies be­come self­suf­fi­cient.

“There is a hous­ing cri­sis in Bal­ti­more,” said Ramos, di­rec­tor of the Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Net­work of Mary­land. “Do­ing noth­ing is not an op­tion.”

Shantress Wise, 42, lives on dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits. She stayed in shel­ters, fam­ily mem­bers’ homes and half­way houses for years un­til she found two room­mates to split the $750 rent for a two-bed­room apart­ment above a barbershop in the Be­lair-Edi­son neigh­bor­hood.

Wise said her bed­room — the apart­ment’s liv­ing room — is cozy. But she dreams of a larger space where her four grand­chil­dren could visit and have an area to play.

“I have strug­gled with hous­ing,” Wise said. She is a mem­ber of an ad­vo­cacy group, United Work­ers, that helped gather the 10,000 sig­na­tures needed to get the

bal­lot ques­tion be­fore vot­ers.

“An af­ford­able hous­ing trust fund would help ev­ery­body. It would help me a lot.”

The char­ter amend­ment is writ­ten to be broad: Vot­ers will be asked to sign off on an ac­count that would pay for rental and owner-oc­cu­pied hous­ing cre­ated through new de­vel­op­ment, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and land trusts.

Ramos said spend­ing from the ac­count would tar­get some of Bal­ti­more’s poor­est res­i­dents, such as renters who earn 30 per­cent or less of the me­dian area in­come ($26,000 for a fam­ily of four) or home­own­ers who make 50 per­cent or less of the area me­dian ($43,350 for a fam­ily of four).

Money could go to any of sev­eral en­deav­ors, in­clud­ing of­fer­ing credit coun­sel­ing and home­own­er­ship work­shops, and help­ing de­vel­op­ers and non­prof­its build houses, ren­o­vate homes or re­ha­bil­i­tate va­cant ones. It also could sup­port land trusts that can keep mort­gages and rents low.

The city hous­ing depart­ment would man­age the fund in con­junc­tion with a 12-mem­ber com­mis­sion that would in­clude a may­oral ap­pointee, a lender, a so­cial ser­vices provider, an ad­vo­cate for the home­less, pri­vate and non­profit de­vel­op­ers, and low-in­come res­i­dents.

The time­line for dis­tribut­ing money would de­pend on when fund­ing is iden­ti­fied, Ramos said. One pro­posal is to tax short-term home ren­tals used for va­ca­tions, sim­i­lar to the tax on ho­tel rooms, she said.

Leg­is­la­tion now be­fore the City Coun­cil would re­quire de­vel­op­ers who re­ceive pub­lic fi­nanc­ing to in­clude in their projects a cer­tain amount of af­ford­able hous­ing. The bill is in­tended to re­place the ex­ist­ing law, which re­quires the city to com­pen­sate de­vel­op­ers forced to build af­ford­able hous­ing, and is uni­ver­sally re­garded as in­ef­fec­tive.

Coun­cil­woman Mary Pat Clarke said she sup­ports both the leg­is­la­tion and the char­ter amend­ment. She said Bal­ti­more must take steps to ad­dress the need, in­clud­ing con­sid­er­ing float­ing city bonds to pay for more af­ford­able hous­ing.

If vot­ers ap­prove the char­ter amend­ment, Clarke said, she ex­pects the coun­cil will be open to find­ing ways to fund it.

“This is one of those big items that we need to ad­dress to move past the ‘Two Bal­ti­mores’ prob­lem,” she said. “We’ve been stuck for a while.”

A new coun­cil and mayor will take Shantress Wise, who lives on dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, stayed in shel­ters, fam­ily mem­bers’ homes and half­way houses for years un­til she found two room­mates to split the $750 rent for a two-bed­room apart­ment. She dreams of a larger space where her grand­chil­dren could visit and play. con­trol af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion. About half the cur­rent coun­cil mem­bers are re­tir­ing, sought other of­fice or lost in the April Demo­cratic pri­mary for mayor.

Clarke, who is up for re-elec­tion, said she ex­pects the next coun­cil to be more re­solved to ad­dress the city’s lack of af­ford­able hous­ing. Sev­eral of the Demo­cratic nom­i­nees have ac­tively sup­ported ef­forts to in­crease af­ford­able hous­ing in Bal­ti­more.

Todd Cherkis, lead­er­ship or­ga­nizer for the anti-poverty group United Work­ers, said ad­vo­cates are meet­ing with coun­cil mem­bers and can­di­dates to ex­plain the pro­posed char­ter amend­ment and how the city could pay for more af­ford­able hous­ing.

The group sent dozens of vol­un­teers across the city over six weeks to col­lect enough sig­na­tures to en­able the ques­tion to ap­pear on the bal­lot. Cherkis said the vol­un­teers — in­clud­ing some of the Demo­cratic nom­i­nees for coun­cil — gath­ered 18,100 sig­na­tures in sup­port of the mea­sure, well ex­ceed­ing the 10,000 needed.

The coali­tion, known as Hous­ing for All, in­cludes the ACLU of Mary­land, the Pub­lic Jus­tice Cen­ter and the Com­mu­nity Law Cen­ter.

“A lot of renters are re­ally strug­gling, and a lot of peo­ple are liv­ing in sub­stan­dard con­di­tions or liv­ing on the street,” Cherkis said. “We have to make sure this is a pri­or­ity.”

Philip Gar­bo­den, an aca­demic with the Poverty and In­equal­ity Re­search Lab at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, said Bal­ti­more has an “enor­mous af­ford­abil­ity gap.”

Un­like in ci­ties such as Bos­ton, San Fran­cisco or Wash­ing­ton, he said, Bal­ti­more’s big­gest af­ford­able hous­ing chal­lenge is its ex­tremely low-in­come pop­u­la­tion — not rapidly ris­ing hous­ing costs or a short­age of avail­able units.

“Our rents aren’t on the ex­treme end,” Gar­bo­den said. “But that doesn’t mean our af­ford­abil­ity is any bet­ter be­cause we have such poverty.”

The trust fund idea is not novel. The state of Mary­land and Mont­gomery County are among 750 ju­ris­dic­tions na­tion­wide that have es­tab­lished such ac­counts.

Mary­land’s Af­ford­able Hous­ing Trust, cre­ated in 1992, has re­ceived about $45 mil­lion through in­ter­est gen­er­ated by ti­tle com­pany es­crows.

The ac­count, which is man­aged by the state Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment, pro­motes hous­ing for very low-in­come Mary­lan­ders by pro­vid­ing fund­ing for con­struc­tion, as­sis­tance for non­profit de­vel­op­ers, sup­port ser­vices and op­er­at­ing costs for some de­vel­op­ments.

Mont­gomery County’s Hous­ing Ini­tia­tive Fund, cre­ated in 1988, is funded by a com­bi­na­tion of sources, in­clud­ing prop­erty tax rev­enue and loan re­pay­ments. The ac­count has a bal­ance of about $44 mil­lion. The amount avail­able for loans, grants and sub­si­dies varies year by year.

Mary Brooks, who runs the hous­ing trust fund project for the Wash­ing­ton-based Cen­ter for Com­mu­nity Change, said the trusts pro­vide flex­i­bil­ity and lo­cal con­trol, in con­trast to fund­ing pro­vided by highly reg­u­lated fed­eral pro­grams.

“We know how to pro­vide af­ford­able hous­ing,” she said. “We are just not com­mit­ting the re­sources to make it hap­pen. The pri­vate mar­ket isn’t ad­dress­ing this at all. If it was, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. And fed­eral fund­ing, of course, is dwin­dling.”

Antonia K. Fasanelli, di­rec­tor of the Home­less Per­sons Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Project, said Bal­ti­more is be­hind other ci­ties in mak­ing sure peo­ple at all in­come lev­els have safe, qual­ity and af­ford­able places to live.

“This is crit­i­cally needed,” she said. “This is a way for Bal­ti­more to step into the cur­rent ur­ban think­ing.”


“I have strug­gled with hous­ing,” says Shantress Wise, 42, a mem­ber of an ad­vo­cacy group, United Work­ers, that helped gather the 10,000 sig­na­tures needed to get the bal­lot ques­tion be­fore Bal­ti­more vot­ers. “An af­ford­able hous­ing trust fund would help ev­ery­body. It would help me a lot.”


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