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  May 29, 2017

How A $40 Million Affordable Housing Fund Could Transform Baltimore


On The Real Baltimore, Resident LaQeisha Greene, Sun reporter Jean Marbella, and attorney Matt Hill explain a proposal that would give communities control over the funding of their projects
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How A $40 Million Affordable Housing Fund Could Transform BaltimoreJaisal Noor: I'm Jaisal Noor with The Real News Network. Welcome to The Real Baltimore. We now turn to a recently unveiled plan to spend some 40 million dollars a year in city money to invest in affordable housing as well as address vacants in the city. Our reporter Stephen Janis reports.

Stephen Janis: This is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Giving away tax breaks to developers has been easy in this city, but now advocates for affordable housing are asking for a different approach.

It's not hard to find examples of how generous Baltimore has been to wealthy developers in the past, you just have to tour the city's mostly white neighborhoods where evidence abounds of pricey deals that have wrought gleaming skyscrapers and luxurious housing all built with taxpayer help. In fact, since 2013 the city has bestowed nearly $700 million in tax breaks to two projects alone. Port Covington owned by Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank and Harbor Point built and developed by [Tausen 01:18] resident, Michael Beatty.

Meanwhile, a recent investigative piece in The Baltimore Sun recounted how low-income tenants have little recourse to fight landlords who offer subpar homes filled with lead. Which is why housing advocates gathered this past weekend at the city's war memorial to propose a solution they say would start restoring equity and affordability to the city's housing stock.

Male Citizen: So the basic idea is to have our government set aside $20 million a year for the demolition of vacant houses and properties, and then another $20 million to put new construction back. That could be rehabbing or fixing up homes, it could also be creating community garden space, it could be providing any other kind of development.

Stephen Janis: The plan augments a just passed affordable housing ballot initiative by adding 40 million to revolving bond funds to restore vacant housing and build more affordable dwellings in neighborhoods long ignored. It's a two-prong approach united by a single, overarching philosophy: Community control.

Male Citizen: And we're also looking at having that be a community controlled process where communities can really begin to have a say and be really, in a sense, the developers of their own community. For too long, as a city, we've been given hundreds of millions of dollars, probably billions of dollars by now, to private developers and all that development has happened only around the inner harbor and very tiny, highly segregated places of our city.

Stephen Janis: Among the attendees was mayor Catherine Pugh.

Catherine Pugh: We are committed to your vision. We are committed to providing housing for the people in our city. We are committed to getting people up off of our streets and creating housing for them. And we are committed to making our public housing what it should be for every citizen who ends up in public housing and requires that to be their home.

Stephen Janis: But more compelling were the testimonies from residents victimized by a city where slumlords reign and banks regularly engage in predatory lending.

Female Citizen: So I lost my home. I'm now out of my home. I moved out April 23rd of this month. I also feel that the city is not compliant or the state is not compliant with looking at statutes that regulate these hedge fund or loan mortgage brokers. It's a shame that we have so many vacant lots in this city that the tax base of the city ... Which means people don't want to invest, you don't have homeowners anymore who really are interested in making this a really wonderful community that I know it could be.

Stephen Janis: [inaudible 03:45] Stephen Janis, [Teo Gram 03:37], and [Teo Granodino 03:47] reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

Jaisal Noor: So now we're back with our expert panel. So, Matt Hill, you are the chairman of the Policy Committee of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable that's proposing this plan. It seems like you've got the mayor's support. Talk about, exactly, how this will work?

Matt HIll: Sure, we're very excited to have the mayor's support and, just to be clear, it's asking for a $20 million investment each year first to deconstruct vacants. As folks have talked about, we have 16,000 by some count vacant properties, some counts of 31,000 vacant properties. And as your intro made clear, no one's looking to invest in neighborhoods where you have so many vacants that are filled with lead and have all sorts of other health and safety issues. So let's really invest city bond funds, in particular, in deconstructing those vacants, to employee people, to put people back to work who maybe can't get employment in other areas. This is a great opportunity to help returning citizens, for instance, get back to work deconstructing vacants.

And the process that we then want to create whatever the community needs. So community parks, community gardens, maybe they need a shopping center or grocery store, that land can then be used for those kind of community uses. We then want to invest the city to invest $20 million a year and we think that the general obligation bonds are a good way to do that to create community control permanently affordable housing. To get folks off the constant revolving cycle of having to be evicted, of having to live in these unsafe conditions, of not being able to afford their homes. And so if the city creates these funds, $20 million a year in general obligation bond funds, in particular. We want to use the community land trust as one model, where the community owns the land and then the person that buys the building is the owner of the building. And they get a 99-year affordable housing agreement that keeps the property affordable for the extended period of time.

Jaisal Noor: And so, Lakisha Green, you spoke out at the event [UM Seed It 05:58] You shared your own, personal stories and your own challenges. So in the first part of the segment, we talked about your experiences moving more than two dozen times over 35 years. How did you become ... How did you go from being a tenant, to an organizer, to a leader in this movement?

Lakisha Green: It started with my issues with housing. My fighting a landlord, living in a house that was just completely unlivable, but, yet, I was able to live in it. I was made to pay rent in, I should say. I ended up finding workers through United Workers and they helped me during the point where I was in a house the court had deemed unlivable. The judge had terminated the lease legally, but only gave me two weeks to move out. And, at this point, I couldn't. There was nowhere for me to go. So I had to figure something out.

And it was with, then, United Workers they kind of helped me to figure out over the course of about four or five weeks, to figure out what my next move would be. And through that, introducing to me what the 20/20 Vision was, what they were trying to do to help fix this solution. It really stuck home to me because this was something that I was part of that revolving door of going through evictions and having sub-livable housing and everything. And, actually, to the point of living on the streets, you know?

Being in those situations, having to go through that, and then you come up to a program, come to an organization such as the Baltimore Housing Roundtable where they're speaking about coming together as a community and fixing this problem of affordable housing. That's pretty much how I got involved because I realized it wasn't just me, this was so many people. As many times as I've been in court, I would see the same landlords, I would see the same agents there, and the faces of the tenants would always change. But there was just always full of tenants. So I knew it wasn't just me. I knew it wasn't ... I knew this was a problem that needed to be fixed and was not being addressed in Baltimore at all.

Jaisal Noor: And so, Jean Marbella, you ... In the first part of this segment, we talked about this year-long investigation you did documenting, highlighting the problems with the rent court. Talk about why Baltimore is so ... Faces so many challenges, here, and what models work elsewhere that could be replicated here?

Jean Marbella: Yeah, our year long investigation was supported by a foundation called Solutions Journalism. And so that's ... In typical journalism fashion, we're always pointing to look at that problem, look at that problem, look how awful everything is. Solutions Journalism thinks that's only the beginning. And, so, Doug and I are hoping to continue looking at the issue, and looking at other cities and seeing what works, what doesn't work. Because what's the point of highlighting a problem if you can't begin to address it?

And when you look at Solutions, here, I think you're talking about two general areas. One is rent court itself. How do you fix rent court? And the second, bigger issue is how do you fix the affordable housing crisis? As far as rent court, Matt can probably talk more about this. A lot of groups are looking at giving tenants either free lawyers or what's called navigators who will help them work through the process so they're not just facing a landlord with his lawyer, with his property manager, and then you're just an average Joe without a legal background. There already are free lawyers available. Public Justice Center, Maryland Legal Aid, and Green and Healthy Housing Initiative, which is the lead paint organization. They all have lawyers available. But that's three lawyers for how many tenants?

So there's some pilot programs that are in the works where people will be given much more legal assistance and, hopefully, not just the day of the trial but in advance of that, so that's one possible solution. As I mentioned previously, some cities have a navigator program where people who are specially trained in the ins-and-outs of rent court who can help a tenant make sure the paperwork is filled out correctly, prepare them for how to defend themselves, what are the proper defenses, and be their buddy throughout the whole process so they're not just facing it by themselves.

Jaisal Noor: And so Matt, the city already has an inclusionary zoning ordinance. On other programs that some people call toothless and haven't amounted to much in many people's eyes, is there any effort being put to revitalize those or even enforce some of the laws that are on the books that, again, some people call weak?

Matt HIll: Yeah, I think the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance is supposed to provide for affordable housing so when you create a new development, a certain percentage of those new units should be affordable housing, and some deeply affordable. And, I think, almost everyone acknowledges that the current law is just a disaster. It's created, I think, 30 or so units at very high incomes. So, yes, there's a lot of talk. I've heard that there, maybe, a task force being put together in the city council to look at inclusionary housing and then the overall comprehensive plan for affordable housing and community development. So I hope that happens.

As Jean was saying, there's a number of pilot projects that the judiciary has been very active in sponsoring to give a little more access to council, or to paralegals, or to navigators to help people at least understand their rights and be able to use them a little bit better. So we certainly support that. But, I think, fundamentally to change the housing market and to really invest in our neighborhoods as [Q 12:28] was talking about, there's the 20/20 plan, to us, is the long-term, real focus of the solution.

Jaisal Noor: So you mentioned community control, because that's going to be a sticking point if there's going to be mass support behind this. How is that going to work?

Matt HIll: Sure, so the problem with a lot of development we see, now, is that it actually displaces the people that it should, hypothetically, be used to help. So how do you do development without displacement? That's the real sticking point. And that's why the community land trust is one model that we're really excited about because, again, the community's controlling the process, they're controlling the land. And it's that process of the community control that then allows that property to stay permanently affordable.

Jaisal Noor: Now when you say community control, is there an elected local board that's going to oversee it?

Matt HIll: Sure, so in a community land trust, your typical community land trust has a board. It's elected by the members of the community, the members of the community land trust, and they oversee what properties should be affordable at what levels, preferably, again, to help the actual residents in these neighborhoods so they're not displaced by the development, so they can share in the benefits of the new grocery stores, the new parks, the new schools that we should all be building.

Jaisal Noor: And can you talk about your hopes for this program? What kind of impact could it make for you and other people in Baltimore?

Lakisha Green: I see community land trusts, actually, working as a bridge to start healing Baltimore. There's been so much division, and discontent, and displacement all over the city that, where this used to be a city that was very proud of where you live, and where you come from, there was a lot of community pride. But at this point now, there's very little of that. And I feel like with community land trusts, that it gives you a sense of this is home, this is somewhere I can actually put down roots as a family, this is somewhere that I know that my neighbors are committed to being here and want to help us to grow together. Because, as Matt was saying, when you're a part of the board for the community, this is long-term things. You're not just thinking about right now, the next 12 months. This is a 100-year commitment, there. So this is something I can pass down to my children, and to my grandchildren.

Jaisal Noor: And you're not just renting.

Lakisha Green: And you're not just renting. This is renting with a purpose. This is owning with a purpose, owning with growth, there. Even as a renter, I mean I get equity back from my housing, but I know that me living here is always going to be within affordable to me, it's going to be within my budget. And knowing that if something does come along, within a community land trust you can always talk to the people that are in charge and they will work with you.

It's not a simple, "Okay, well, I had a tragedy in my family and now I can't afford to pay my rent because my child was in the hospital." You can go to the board and tell them, "Look, this is what my situation is." And it's more flexible, it's able to work with you whereas now a situation like that, you can't really bring that up in court. That's not something that the court is going to look at as relevant. But within a community land trust, those are things that are relevant and they work with you there.

Jaisal Noor: You look at the bigger issue of affordable housing, one thing you can't escape is that people are making wages that are so low that you can't afford housing. You literally cannot afford to pay your rent.

Lakisha Green: Oh, absolutely.

Jaisal Noor: If you're making minimum wage, you would need to be paying like $500 at the most, if that, you can pay for rent. So the mayor says she supports this. But she also said she supports raising the minimum wage and she backed down from that. She actually vetoed the city council resolution that had near veto proof support. That fell apart. And, so, she's come out and said this, she's going to support this. But what are you going to do to hold her feet to the fire?

Lakisha Green: I am planning on holding her very accountable for what she says. Because, as a new mayor, I understand you have a lot going on your shoulders here. You have the housing crisis, you have the crisis with the school, you have school crisis, and you have the consent decree that's here with the police, and everything. That's a lot on your shoulders.

But the base of those issues comes with housing. And if your citizens, as me, private citizen, if I'm not able to have a stable home to live in, then you're going to have those problems. They're going to come, regardless. So if you start by actually looking at the solution, the base of the problems, and fixing it from that point of view, I feel like it makes things so much easier in the long run.

We're not looking for short-term resolution here, we're looking for long-term, something that can generate livability and profitability to some degree, too, because you're not looking ... Like Matt said, we're not looking just for free homes. We're looking for something within our levels. If I'm working part-time- Well, excuse me, even if I'm working full-time, at minimum wage, at $10 an hour, that's not even minimum wage, but even at $10 an hour, I'm only bringing in $19,000-$20,000. But my rent for the month, for the year, you're looking at anywhere from $12,000-$15,000. That's more than what I can afford legally, it's more than what you can afford. But this is what majority of Baltimore has to live with.

Jaisal Noor: So you've been talking to people about this plan, what has been the response of the public?

Lakisha Green: All over, everyone I've ever spoke to they are very much in support of what the 20/20 Vision is offering to the city. We're not offering to raise taxes, this is not something that is going to be a burden to the tax payers, but, so-

Jaisal Noor: And the amount of bonds is only a fraction compared to what the developers-

Lakisha Green: Compared to what they have, exactly. These are funds that are already supposed to be allocated to this.

Jaisal Noor: For this purpose. Yeah.

Lakisha Green: For this purpose. Now you just have to actually put it into the fund where we're allocating where we're supposed to be. That's all it is, there's no extra being asked for except for to trust that we as a community, as citizens, as Baltimore, we can do this together without having to cause all this strain that you my think will come from it. But it's not.

Jaisal Noor: Finally, Jean, let's end with you. You've been a reporter here in Baltimore for some three decades, now. Do you see this as having a possible, transformational impact on this city?

Jean Marbella: It could. I am just amazed that what you're working on. It seems like it's really addressing the big issue, not just what's happening in this household or what's happening in this neighborhood. But, yeah, I think it just ... I think citizens need to demand that their office holders address this issue. It all starts with housing. You would never ... Jobs, education, crime, it all starts with housing. And I think for too long people have grown accustomed to Baltimore being the way it is. It's like, "Oh, that's what Sandtown is like. Oh that's what Park Heights is like." But who says that's what it has to be like?

Jaisal Noor: Great, well I want to thank you all for joining us for this extended discussion. You can watch both parts of this discussion of The Real Baltimore at therealnews.com. Jean Marbella, long-term reporter with The Baltimore Sun, did an excellent expose on rent court and housing in this city. We'll link to that report at therealnews.com.

Lakisha Green is a leader with United Workers and a big part of this movement, a big part of why we're doing this show. So thank you for being on with us.

Matt Hill, part of the Public Justice Law Center and you're the chair of the Policy Committee of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable. Thank you so much for joining us, as well.

Matt HIll: Thank you.

Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us on this latest episode of The Real Baltimore.



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