As much as 30% of City residents require assistance, according to Luis Larin of United Workers
KIM BROWN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown. We’re just a few short weeks out from election day and beyond electing a brand new mayor and a handful of potentially new city council members, Baltimoreans will see a ballot initiative that, if approved, would create a housing trust-fund to help extremely low-income families keep a roof over their heads. It’s called “Question J,” and over 18,000 signatures were collected to get it in front of the voters on the November ballot. Today we’re joined in studio with Luis Larin. He is a leadership coordinator with the organization called United Workers. He joined the group in 2006 while he was working as a day laborer, and prior to that he gained experience organizing in Guatemala. Luis, thank you so much for being here. LUIS LARIN: Thank you for having me here. BROWN: Luis, the Department of Housing and Urban Development describe, define affordable housing by how much of the monthly income goes towards a mortgage or rent. So if a person is spending 30% or more of a monthly income on their housing, than they’re defined as cost burdened, but if they’re spending 50% or more of their monthly income on housing, they’re defined as extremely cost burdened. How many Baltimore residents does this describe? LARIN: Yeah, that’s a great question and it would be approximately a third of Baltimore city when you think of how many workers have a low wage job and have family depending on them, that number actually makes a lot of sense. It’s like a third of our city that’s going through this problem. Because we are not seeing good jobs. We are not seeing people actually making good money to live. BROWN: So tell us about what the Affordable Housing Trust Fund is and what it would look like were it to pass on the ballot in November. LARIN: So the trust fund is assigned to create affordable housing. But create affordable housing in a way that doesn’t divide people but actually can unite people between renters, homeless people, and homeowners by creating different opportunities for people to get a house or to get a more affordable rent or also address the issues of homelessness. So the trust fund is meant to really create a permanent affordable housing using different tools including community land trust for example which is not a conventional way to think about housing but it’s a more effective way to address issues of housing in different cities. BROWN: So explain the difference if there’s any between the Affordable Housing Trust and the existing housing choice voucher program or section 8. LARIN: With voucher program it’s just a program giving incentives to being able to pay for the rent and those type of things, but it is not addressing one of the main issues that we have in income inequality, in control of land, and who owns the land for example. The community land trust that is one of the tools that could be used with this trust fund actually address the issue of affordability, because with the- with vouchers you have all these restrictions. Also who wants to receive vouchers? And it’s also like some companies and some landlords use to discriminate people. Instead when we talk about community land trust, we talk about community driven process that is more, that is meant to actually address the issues of inequality, address the issues of acquiring a house. Those are the difference. Because the trust fund, it would use different tools to address homelessness, to address high level of rent, and also mortgages. That’s the main difference I can explain. BROWN: So this past July, the Federal government announced the creation of a national affordable housing trust and they have pledged up to 174 million dollars for this. But, when you look at 174 million dollars spread out across 50 states and the District of Columbia, it doesn’t really amount to a whole lot of money. So if Baltimore were to vote and approve on a city affordable housing trust, where would the money come from? How would it be funded? LARIN: We are looking and talking with the different city council people to find out ways to put money into that fund because the reality is we have so many opportunities where we can get the funds for something like this if we have it already in place. So you look for example at how many development projects have come lately and how much public resources are going them. So why devote risking that- some of their profits into this, this fund for example. So there is- we are looking into creating ways to allocate funds into the trust fund in talking with the city council people and also with some of the possible future city council people that also are, have been very supportive of this idea and truly want to make this idea to work in Baltimore city. It’s something that we are working on with them. BROWN: So you say you are working with the City Council on I guess working out the details of this if it passes through the voters. What has been your take on political will? Do you find that some of Baltimore’s elected officials are enthusiastically behind? Or are you finding some of them are reluctant, tepid? What’s been your sense of the political might or lack thereof being this? LARIN: Definitely having a lot of interest on it. And to just United Workers in general have been working a lot with a lot of the housing issues. And hearing occasional hearing about community land trust last year. And the city council has been open to hear a lot of this. But we also have to remember that we have new leadership coming up and a lot of that new leadership, they were outside getting signatures for this. So that’s the level of commitment we are seeing. It’s not just, that sounds like a great idea, now what can we do? But actually they’ve been part of the collection of signatures. Which it the less attractive thing to do right? Because something that is not established yet- but they see the need for something like this that they actually use their networks and went and knock on doors to get signatures for the trust fund too so we know the ones that once they get elected we have a good support for creating ways to put money into this trust fund. This won’t be just a good idea but it would be something that they want to implement. BROWN: So your organization United Workers gathered 18,000 signatures. Tell us about that process, what it was knocking on people’s doors. And were people open to what you were telling them about what Question J is and what the Affordable Housing Trust could be? What was the reaction from city residents as you were collecting these signatures in a relatively short amount of time no less? LARIN: So United Workers are part of the whole coalition called Housing For All which includes a bunch of organizations which also participate in the collection of signatures, but people were very receptive. It was definitely a crazy time, getting so many signatures, because we needed 10,000 valid signatures, or signatures from voters from Baltimore city to actually make this ballot initiative. So we had a little bit less than 6 weeks to get that done. So it was a lot of craziness. We did a lot grocery stores, farmer’s markets, door knocking, festivals, and everywhere that we could talk to people we were. We were going and talking. Most people were overwhelming receptive. That’s the only reason why we were able to get 18,000 signatures, more than 18,000 signatures in less than 6 weeks, because people were actually excited and wanted to see something different in Baltimore. Most people are tired to see what Baltimore- they come and they want to find solutions. And people are ready to take those solutions. People have been ready to see some different for a while. So, actually there was overwhelming support for that. BROWN: So nearly 40% of the state of Maryland’s homeless population is right here in Baltimore city. With the creation of an Affordable Housing Trust, would it have any impact on the homeless? LARIN: It will. I mean, that’s part of this idea. So the housing trust fund and the community land trust are just part of a bigger plan of- called 2020, which is the idea of having 20 million dollars to deconstruct vacant houses. And 20 million dollars to rebuild them and to create the community land trust to take back a lot of that land that is being not used right now or take back those houses that right now can be used for homeless people, right? Or for families that are paying to much in rent, or people that cannot afford their mortgages. We know there are a lot of people there that can benefit for this. So the housing trust fund is just part of like a larger vision that we have been pushing in the city for a while. And it definitely- homeless people are part of the population that we are looking at. How can we support this? And how can we deal with homelessness? United Workers actually started in a homeless shelter. That’s how we started. People were homeless because they would work in the stadium, they weren’t making any money. We know how homelessness effects people and effects the city. And one of the main things that we’re doing with all this campaign of 2020 and the housing campaign is how do we really unite these two groups that don’t really talk to each other- homeowners, renters, and homeless people. And how they have been put in positions where they need to fight against each other, right? And so we’re looking, and how can we use the energy that everyone has to see something different. To actually challenge and change that. Definitely people who are homeless, they will benefit for this housing trust fund. That’s part of the idea. BROWN: So Luis, we have all been watching this highly contentious debate over Port Covington, this massive proposed big development for South Baltimore with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. It was reported Wednesday that the Sagamore Development Company has apparently agreed to allot 20% of the future residences at the Port Covington site to be deemed as affordable housing. That is a number that a lot of housing advocated sought, because the original number I believe was 10% that Sagamore agreed to and now it’s been reported by the Baltimore Sun that it’s upwards of 20%. What are your thoughts on that? LARIN: Yeah, you know one of the organizations we work close with, Housing Our Neighbors, represent homeless people and former homeless people. For example, they were pushing for something there. As I understand it, is not enough. Number one it’s not enough, and what does Sagamore find affordable? That’s one of the problems that we’ve had in the past- that they create affordable housing, but affordable for who? Not affordable for the tier of population in Baltimore that can, that barely can pay rent. Not affordable for them. So the end is not really fixing the problem and that’s part of- that’s one of the reasons why, we’ve been pushing for this agenda the 2020 mission, you know, where it actually addresses those issues, not only, not depending only on the good will of developers. Because we know if we just wait for them to do the right thing, it never happens. That’s why we need to keep fighting. We know the detail is not enough for Baltimore. It’s not what Baltimore deserve, and it’s not fair- the amount of money that Sagamore is receiving versus the amount of what they call benefits that, giving back to the city, giving back to the community, is not enough. It’s not fair for anyone in the city. So- BROWN: It’s not a done deal though. It still has to get out of the city council committee. It could go to the city council for a preliminary vote as soon as Monday. But, so what do you guys plan to do between now and then to maybe push more what you’re looking for? LARIN: So we’re having a rally tonight, today for and then we’re going to the hearing and not just United Workers, but a coalition of organizations. I mean this, if anythings we need to recognize, and we are happy to see Baltimore City come more and more together to fight against this deal. And that is a good sign. That people are tired. That people want something different. But we can keep fighting all that we want, but if we don’t have like structures and a base to actually keep the developers accountable, we will keep doing this forever. And that’s part of our thinking on develop this 2020 vision this 2020 plan, where there’s a structure. Like the Housing Trust Fund for example. There’s a structure that if it’s it’s well used and we make sure that stays accountable, it can change things. So we don’t need to always be fighting for little things. Instead we can think proactively. That’s the deal with the housing trust fund, the 2020 plan is how can we think proactively? How can we not always be fighting, fighting, fighting, with the next project which is coming. But how can we keep developers and city council and the government in general accountable to what they do? How can we change the priorities in the city? And the 2020 plan is about that. It’s about changing the priorities of the city. The priorities should be us as communities. The priorities should be our communities are falling apart. The properties should be all schools, the priorities should be our homeless population. Those should be our priorities. Instead of the priorities, how much money can we give to a developer. And until we develop these structures, we will continue having that problem. And that’s why the 2020 plan, vision, is to change the priorities in Baltimore. To get the properties to the right place which is the community. So we’ll keep fighting for this today, tonight. And definitely continue putting pressure as much as we need and can to try to change things in the last minute if it’s possible. We’re not giving up yet. That’s for sure. BROWN: And do you have a slogan to remind voters to look for the ballot initiative in November? LARIN: So for now the only slogan that we have is “Question J on Election Day.” So that’s the only real slogan that we have so far. And you will see a lot of logos around, they’ll explain what Question J is- housing for all. So people will know what they’re voting for. But yeah, as for now that is the only slogan that we have. But we’re working on creating more, as election day is coming up soon, we are excited to create all of that. BROWN: Well we certainly appreciate you taking some time this week to talk about this very important issue for the city and probably for the nation at large. Luis Larin, he’s from United Workers. He’s the leadership coordinator there. We certainly appreciate you speaking with us today. LARIN: Thank you so much. BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.