A $225 mil­lion in­vest­ment in Bal­ti­more

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Seema D. Iyer

Re­cently in Bal­ti­more, I had the chance to hear 2015 MacArthur Ge­nius Fel­low Matthew Des­mond, au­thor of “Evicted,” dis­cuss his re­search on the im­pact of evic­tions on low-in­come house­holds and how cru­cial ad­dress­ing this is­sue is for al­le­vi­at­ing poverty in the U.S.. The sta­tis­tics are sober­ing: 1 in 5 African Amer­i­can women will ex­pe­ri­ence an evic­tion in her life­time, and low-in­come house­holds with chil­dren are three times more likely to be evicted.

I’ll ad­mit I was skep­ti­cal that I would learn any­thing new from his talk. I over­see the Bal­ti­more Neigh­bor­hood In­di­ca­tors Al­liance within the Ja­cob France In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more, where we tracked evic­tions by neigh­bor­hoods from 2000-2009 in our an­nual Vi­tal Signs re­port. To­day, there are as many evic­tion cases in the court sys­tem as there are renters in Bal­ti­more, ac­cord­ing to the Pub­lic Jus­tice Cen­ter, and many lo­cal en­ti­ties have been work­ing on evic­tion re­form. We, like Mr. Des­mond, know this is a prob­lem.

What he brought to us that we needed, how­ever, was a sense of ur­gency to think big. “You can’t fix poverty in Amer­ica if we don’t fix hous­ing,” MrDes­mond­said. Na­tion­wide, only 1 of 4 house­holds who qual­ify for hous­ing as­sis­tance ac­tu­ally re­ceives it in Amer­ica. He of­fered up a very bold so­lu­tion: Pro­vide hous­ing choice vouch­ers to ev­ery house­hold liv­ing in poverty to­day.

Our re­search at BNIA-JFI has pointed us in the same di­rec­tion. In Bal­ti­more, we have roughly 10,000 house­holds with a hous­ing voucher, and 15,000 house­holds on a wait list for a voucher. Be­cause the voucher has the same value any­where in the city, house­holds with a voucher are wel­comed by prop­erty own­ers in neigh­bor­hoods that would typ­i­cally com­mand an equal or of­ten lower rent on the pri­vate rental mar­ket — the same house­holds those on the wait list are seek­ing to rent.

Prop­erty own­ers in these neigh­bor­hoods are more at­tracted to voucher hold­ers be­cause they are pre­sumed to have a more steady ca­pa­bil­ity of pay­ing rent than those who do not have a voucher, and land­lords ac­tu­ally com­pete for the lucky few who have them. I have seen how this un­nec­es­sary scram­bling causes anx­i­ety for non­voucher hold­ers who are try­ing to ob­tain or hang on to hous­ing in de­cent neigh­bor­hoods with­out as­sis­tance — an of­ten dif­fi­cult strug­gle.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Vi­tal Signs re­port, the top three neigh­bor­hoods in Bal­ti­more with high hous­ing voucher use also have the high­est per­cent­age of renters spend­ing more than 30 per­cent of their in­come on rent, which means even these lower-priced units are unaf­ford­able for many.

We at BNIA-JFI were inch­ing to­ward the pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tion of hous­ing vouch­ers for all who qual­ify, elim­i­nat­ing the wait list, when 2015’s civil un­rest took place in Bal­ti­more. We put to­gether some dis­cus­sion points on the hous­ing prob­lem — the data, the pros of adopt­ing such a pol­icy, the back-of-the-en­ve­lope costs of ac­com­mo­dat­ing 15,000 more house­holds. The es­ti­mate is about $225 mil­lion.

It’s fair to say that in or­der to im­ple­ment bold so­lu­tions, lo­cally or na­tion­ally, we need to be well-or­ga­nized and multi-sec­tored to make our case. Lo­cal lead­ers, foun­da­tions and hous­ing ad­vo­cates are not yet co­a­lesc­ing around this idea as a pol­icy out­come, how­ever.

The good news is that I be­lieve we can get to po­lit­i­cal agree­ment, based on the eco­nomic im­pact such a move would have. Get­ting ev­ery­one off the hous­ing voucher wait­list is ac­tu­ally only sec­on­dar­ily a poverty-alle­vi­a­tion strat­egy. It is pri­mar­ily a lo­cal com­mu­nity- and eco­nomic-de­vel­op­ment strat­egy. The vouch­ers given to those on the wait list would then go to lo­cal prop­erty own­ers, who are op­er­at­ing an in­come-gen­er­at­ing busi­ness with their prop­er­ties. An in­jec­tion of $225 mil­lion into Bal­ti­more’s econ­omy would help not only the 15,000 house­hold on the voucher wait list but also those who rent hous­ing to them. The city’s hous­ing stock could be brought up to build­ing code com­pli­ance. And the as­sessed value of home­own­ers’ prop­er­ties in the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood could climb, bring­ing more prop­er­ties into the tax-pay­ing cat­e­gory. Es­sen­tially, this ex­pense would be an in­vest­ment in the city’s real es­tate in gen­eral.

We need to end the econ­omy of scarcity that is af­ford­able hous­ing in Bal­ti­more. The ul­ti­mate so­lu­tion is to ad­dress the decades­long hous­ing voucher wait list. We can make this bold vi­sion hap­pen, if we work to­gether. The so­lu­tion is not so far off as it may first ap­pear.

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