Advocates Push Law Requiring Affordable Housing for Billionaire Tax Break
A new bill introduced by low income housing groups would roll-back the ruling that Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank’s Port Covington development does not have to build affordable housing despite seeking hundreds of millions in taxpayer support
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
We are outside the War Memorial Plaza where last week hundreds of Baltimore residents gathered to listen and comment on the largest tax break in city history: a $660 million TIFF for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank to build Port Covington. One of the worst parts of the deal, critics say, is the fact that Plank has been given an exemption from the city’s inclusionary housing law, meaning there will be no affordable housing in the project. To address this, housing advocates working with Carl Stokes have introduced a bill that will require any project using public money include housing for low income residents.
Stephen, you spoke with housing advocate Jeff Singer. What did he have to say today?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well they’re introducing this bill because as well all know, Port Covington has been made exempt from the city’s inclusionary housing law. So the idea of the bill, this specific bill, is to target Port Covington and to ensure that Port Covington regardless will have to provide some low-income housing. And not just housing that is being planned, that’s about 80% of the entire area ADI, or medium income. But the medium income in Baltimore City, Maryland, where obviously poverty is more concentrated. But the bill also is part of the dissatisfaction with the city’s inclusionary housing law in general.
We at the Real News Network did an MBIA request where we asked how many projects have been exempt from inclusionary housing. Turns out there’s some really luxurious projects besides Port Covington that have actually been made exempt from this law. One of them would be 26 South Calvert. Another one 1012 North Light Street. Both of them are luxurious $1,500-1,800 month apartments, and absolutely no inclusionary housing.
As a matter of fact, according to the Baltimore Brew, Baltimore City’s only built 25 low-income housing units under this bill since it was enacted in 2007. And part of it, really crazy part of it, that not many people know is that the developer doesn’t have to pay for this. It is the city that has to pay for this. The city put $2 million in this fund 7 or 8 years ago or in 2007–that’s actually 9 years ago–and has not replenished it since. So really the inclusionary housing law as it stands right now is kind of a joke.
GRAHAM: Why is this issue so important to Baltimore City residents?
JANIS: Well, I mean, we have one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the area. So you take the high concentration of poverty. You have the awareness in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray of how we have two cities. Well, giving a $600 million tax break to a developer without ever giving anything back in terms of having inclusionary housing is really, I think, it only exacerbates the problems that we report that we want to solve.
GRAHAM: Now Stephen, we went to a party at Sagamore in Port Covington. We went to the city garage and it was a party sponsored by the one thousand friends and we saw their new distillery, we saw maker space. Can you tell me a little bit about that event?
JANIS: Well this issue is about the same issue that we’re talking about here. Inclusionary housing, and including low income housing in this project. But I think the point is for Jeff Singer, and the point is for the people who were at that party is that they want fairness. I mean, Jeff Singer, I think and you’ll see in the interview says if this tiff has to happen which he doesn’t necessarily—he doesn’t support it, then there has to be some equity in it and I think that’s what this is about, economic equity.
JEFF SINGER: If there is an enormous Port Covington project that has a gigantic public contribution to it–and we’re talking about $660 million–if that were to happen it is absolutely essential that affordable housing, housing affordable to the poorest people in Baltimore, be part of that project. There are 92,000 households in Baltimore that can’t pay their rent every month, and we need to assist them in finding a decent place to live. There are probably 5,000 people sleeping on the street every night as well. As the project currently stands there’s no housing for poor people in it, and that’s disgraceful.
JANIS: So what would the bill do and what is different about what laws already exist on the books?
SINGER: Yes, good. The bill requires the developer, if he/she receives these public dollars, to create housing for people in Baltimore with incomes at or below 30% of the area median income. And I’m sorry to use that jargon, but that’s what it says in the bill. What that means is an income of about $26,000 a year for a family of four.
JANIS: Wow, that’s low. So this will make it, there’s no–this project got an exemption from inclusionary housing. This will not allow protection?
SINGER: Well, right. This would overturn the exemption that the city shamefully gave to this really wealthy developer. I mean the developer is one of the wealthiest people in the United States with a net worth of $3-4 billion. A company that’s thriving with record profits and there’s absolutely no reason, I think, that city should provide any funds for them. But if the city does, we have to get something in return and that something should benefit all Baltimoreans not just wealthy ones.
There are three bills that create the Port Covington tax increment financing. If those three bills pass and ours does as well, which will eventually be tied to those three, then when the developer gets $660 million either some of those funds, or other funds the developer gets, are going to be targeted for housing that people can afford. It’ll create an integrated community, integrated by wealth and race in Port Covington, and benefit everyone in Baltimore.
I was out on the street the Saturday, April 25 after Freddie Gray was killed by the Baltimore City police, no matter what the courts say, and we were promised that there would now be a new direction in Baltimore. There’d be one Baltimore. In fact, the city [inaud.] created this new organization called One Baltimore, right? Development was going to be done differently. Wealth was going to be redistributed to benefit everyone. That hasn’t happened. It’s so clear that hasn’t happened. We don’t have one Baltimore. We have two Baltimores, and the one that’s really wealthy is still calling the shots. It’s the one that gets money from the city and in this case the largest TIFF in the history of the city. But there are others, too. There’s one in West Baltimore at the Biopark. A billion-dollar company is getting money from the city for the Biopark at the University of Maryland. It’s absurd.
But fundamentally nothing has changed in terms of the distribution of power and wealth. And we’re hoping that by advocating for affordable housing in Port Covington, we’re making a very small inroad into smashing down that one Baltimore, which is just an idea for helping the wealthy, turning it into a one Baltimore that helps everyone.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
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