Residents Outraged City Won’t Commit to 100% Affordable Housing
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“We know how to fight, we know how to organize and we know how to get it done,” Housing activist Shashawnda Campbell said. “No one knows our communities better than us, and we will fight for them.”

Campbell was one of many Baltimore residents who testified last night at a meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) Commission at the agency’s headquarters. Campbell and others expressed anger and frustration at the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) for not committing to exclusively using Baltimore’s new multimillion AHTF to create permanently affordable housing in traditionally disinvested neighborhoods.

Of the $5 million currently available in the fund, officials would only commit up to $1.5 million to land trusts. The long-awaited meeting took place at the agency’s headquarters on Tuesday, August 27.

“We expect 100% of these funds going into these communities that have no investment,” said  Campbell. “If it was a priority, you would be 100% committed to investing in redlined communities.”

Market-rate housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable for working people across the country, and affordable housing trust funds aim to fill the void by spending tax dollars  on restoring or creating housing that’s available at a fair rate. One in four black residents live in poverty, and one in ten Baltimore families are on the waitlist for Baltimore’s Section 8 Housing Voucher Program.

Promoting Community Land Trusts are a key priority for activists, because they provide low-income residents a path to homeownership, through a below-market rate 99-year lease. But Freed said DHCD would only commit to allocating between first $1- $1.5 million of the fund to Community Land Trusts (CLTs). Commissioner Tisha Guthrie said that figure seemed “sparse,” noting studies have found CLT homeowners were ten times less likely to default on their mortgages, Freed emphasized she wants to meet with commission members on points of contention between the group’s demands and positions DHCD’s outlined. Organizers point to cities like Buffalo, New York and Jackson, Mississippi that have had some success adopting community land trusts

Stacy Freed, a Housing Department senior advisor, presented the agency’s findings, and said their goal is to “build as many affordable housing units as we can.” She said the Housing Department could not commit to 100% permanent affordability, a key demand of the fair housing movement that has spent the last three years creating, and then securing, funding for the AHTF.

Freed was first questioned by members of the AHTF Commission, a group of twelve local housing developers and housing advocates who oversee the trust fund.

“I’d like to know all the project is it going to be affordable forever,” said Commissioner Vernadine Kimball, alluding to a key demand in a report issued last month by the Fair Development Round Table. “We know the issue of permanent affordability is important to everyone,’ Freed responded. “That’s one of the topics we need to sit down and have more discussions of this issue.”

Since 2016, United Workers and the Fair Development Roundtable (formerly known as The Baltimore Housing Roundtable). In 2016, they passed a ballot measure creating the AHTF, in 2018 they pressured then-mayor Catherine Pugh to create revenue sources for the fund. DHCD expects to begin accepting applications for the trust fund later this year, and activists say they will continue to pressure the agency to accept funding projects that create housing that is permanently affordable for all city residents,

Freed acknowledged that those housing activists played a key role in creating and securing money for the fund, which currently contains $5 million.

Commissioner Matt Hill questioned why the DHCD’s figure was not higher, citing calculations that should put that figure closer to $15 million. DHCD said those remaining funds would be available later in the year. The AHTF is funded by allocations provided by the mayor, and taxes on real estate transactions over $1 million, and will total $20 million a year by 2023.

Tensions escalated during public comment where about a dozen of the 100 members of the public who attended the event spoke out.

“One day I want to own my own house, but we can’t make out here,”  said Ambrosias Jones, who is experiencing homelessness.

“As a single mother, with a job, it’s still not enough,” Jones said. “I want you to know there’s a lot of homeless youth and a lot of homeless people, period.”

“We’re not getting answers how this is going to help us. A lot of stay in a shelter, and we have nowhere to go,” said Aliya who did not provide her last name. “We’re getting a run-around. We’re not getting answers from anyone.”

This desperation, another resident said, can lead some residents to resort to criminal behavior. “If it wasn’t for our men doing criminal shit, we wouldn’t be nowhere,” she said. “My boyfriend has to rob people like you to get stuff for me, so I can get to work.”

“Will you commit to one hundred percent permanently affordable housing?” asked youth activist Terriq Thompson.

Jalal Greene, Chief Operations Officer of DHCD, said the agency could not currently fulfill that request: “We’re not against it all, we just don’t have the models to achieve that.”

Officials have long maintained they lack the funds to create affordable housing, but advocates note, the city does pour billions into subsidies for developers. For decades, officials have offered billions of dollars in subsidies to developers who promise to build affordable housing. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s Port Covington development received over half a billion dollars in tax incentives. But the city’s inclusionary housing law is weak, and the Inclusionary Housing Fund never received the funds necessary to address the shortage in affordable housing. The Baltimore Brew reported developers frequently skirt the intent of the law, noting the trust fund has created just nine affordable housing units in the last five years.

The new fund could mark a stark departure from the way the city has traditionally approached affordable housing. “Intentional damage that was done to these communities in this city could be undone,” said Commissioner Tisha Guthrie.

But the city’s legacy of inequity cannot be undone quickly, said Commissioner Vernadine Kimball, who collected 2,000 signatures to get the Affordable Housing Trust Fund on the ballot by 2016. “Give us a chance, she said. “We cannot do this overnight because it did not happen overnight”.

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Jaisal is currently the Democracy Initiative Manager at the Solutions Journalism Network and is a former TRNN host, producer, and reporter. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent. Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years. Follow him on Twitter @jaisalnoor.