Category: In The News

What’s Your 2015 Housing Resolution?

Reposted from Housing Policy Watch:

People make much of the idea of “two cities” in Baltimore — one, affluent and white, and the other is usually labeled as poor and black. This view leaves out the third group: the folks, black and white, who earn around the city’s median income of $40,000 or so, and have solid potential to be upwardly mobile over the long term. You know — the working families who don’t consider themselves rich or poor, just…somewhere in the middle trying to get by. They don’t qualify for housing assistance, and even if they did — they probably wouldn’t apply (who has the time to hold down a full-time job, run a household, raise kids or take care of elderly parents or an ailing spouse, and commit to the arduous process of applying for social services?), and there isn’t a whole lot of moderate-income housing for them anyway.

It’s not like I’m saying anything I haven’t said a million times before, and won’t keep saying  — but I have to wonder why, in a city with so much potential safe and affordable housing — we have so little of it.

One of the reasons is the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This is the agency in charge of setting what they deem a “Fair Market Rent (FMR) for every Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Our MSA includes Towson, Columbia, and all the other wealthy suburbs in between. The idea is to set the FMR at a level that would allow low- and very low-income renters who receive Section 8/Housing Choice Vouchers to move from their neighborhoods of concentrated poverty into areas of prosperity (and higher rents). This is problematic on multiple levels:

  • Most poor people, through either a lack of means or a desire to stay near jobs, family, and other support systems, don’t actually move far away if at all. It’s hard to leave family support and friends, particularly if a low-income family relies on family and friends for childcare and/or transportation. Also, many wealthier suburbs (and even wealthier city neighborhoods) don’t have adequate or reliable public transit, making it hard for low-income families to access jobs, childcare, doctors, or shopping.
  • Because the FMR is based on a geographic area that includes wealthier suburbs, the FMR is unreasonably high in many of our moderate- and low-income neighborhoods. To ask someone earning the median, or just on either side of the median, to pay $1250 a month (approximate FMR for a two-bedroom house or apartment in the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson MSA) without housing assistance in many of our neighborhoods drives out the stabilizing force that moderate-income working families bring. It also drives away their current and future tax dollars, and consumer spending.

Many of our city’s neighborhoods, despite news and other reports to the contrary, are either stagnating, or they’re becoming even more concentrated areas of poverty, as more prosperous neighborhoods receive development projects and other attention from the State and City governments. (See concentrated poverty map again, to reiterate this point.) Oftentimes, this is due to investors snapping up cheap and foreclosed homes to flip and turn into Section 8 rentals. In Pigtown, one LLC flipped one block of homes to another LLC, for around $19,000 each, further destabilizing home prices. Inexplicably, one of the homes is now on the market for $174,000, when many homes on surrounding streets are on the market for far less. How long before this block of homes is turned into Section 8 rentals, if they don’t sell? Turning them into rentals those with moderate incomes could afford would be the better course of action — it would add stability to a floundering neighborhood, and could potentially raise property values as these renters turn into buyers.

From a 2003 National Housing Institute/Shelterforce article:

During the past decade, speculators saw an opportunity in Patterson Park – and in the loopholes of the voucher program. They found they could snap up vacant rowhouses for as little as $10,000, give them a fresh coat of paint, pass Section 8 inspection, and start to rake in vouchers worth $700 a month, much more than the rentals would be worth on the private market. As groups of out-of-town investors got in on the deal, Section 8 families flooded into as many as 700 of Patterson Park’s rowhouses. The neighborhood became visibly poorer and shabbier as the landlords ignored maintenance. “The people buying here were not experienced property managers,” Rutkowski says. “They were accountants and lawyers in the suburbs.”

While Patterson Park has improved considerably since 2003, it still struggles with investor-owned low-income housing. Something that could have alleviated current and past problems — mixed-income housing, and the stability that moderate-income earners bring to the table.

Some encouraging news was reported in this morning’s Baltimore Sun: One development near the biopark in West Baltimore will have 20% of its planned units set aside for moderate- and low-income tenants. Whether this plan comes to fruition or not — that remains to be seen.

Making affordable housing for working families a top priority of City and State government needs to happen. Our city cannot afford to be divided in three — it needs to come together to find real solutions that aren’t tied to nice-sounding theories and campaign contributions. Solid investments in our neighborhoods, a commitment to making Baltimore a liveable city, and reworking of HUD’s FMR would be a great start. Let’s make this happen in 2015 — together.

City Drops Ball, Citizens Go Public on Facebook, City Says “Don’t Do That”.

Residents in one Baltimore neighborhood have been complaining about one house for months. 311 calls, online complaints, emails to Councilman Curran’s office — and nothing was done…until the residents banded together on their neighborhood’s Facebook group, as reported by the Baltimore Brew.

For months, the residents of the home were dumping human waste into the alley, and leaving buckets of waste at the rear of the property. Neighbors filed multiple 311 complaints, called and emailed their councilman — all the things you’re supposed to do, as a good neighbor, to no avail. I happened to read about all of this on the neighborhood’s Facebook group, and sent an email to Baltimore Housing. Fern Shen of the Brew wrote about the issue, and inspectors were quickly dispatched to the property, where inspectors found more than they bargained for. As a result, the residents of the home have been moved out, and the house has been deemed uninhabitable by Baltimore Housing, and will be secured.

What irks me, however, are the statements made by Alli Smith, deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and Christine Muldowney, a staffer for Councilman Curran.

“I’m glad this issue was resolved eventually. In the future, if you need assistance with issues in the neighborhood, or need to know which agency can resolve a certain issue – the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods is a great resource and you can contact your neighborhood liaison directly,” said Alli Smith, deputy director of that office, writing on the Facebook thread.

“Yes, direct contact is best since there is no guarantee that a city liaison of Mayor or Council will see it,” agreed Christine Muldowney, a staffer for 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran. “I just accidentally saw post here.”

While I agree the initial complaint shouldn’t be on social media, I strongly disagree that these neighbors shouldn’t have complained publicly, using the tools available to them. Isn’t this what social media is for? And what about all of the residents’ 311 calls and emails to the councilman’s office? Why did they go ignored until the issue was made public by the Brew?

This isn’t the first time a resident living in squalor was ignored until it was made public. I’ve personally written about three, and there are many I didn’t write about — didn’t need to, since the issues were resolved through Baltimore Housing. You can read about one of the worst cases I wrote about here.

Many kudos to these residents, and to the Brew, for taking the initiative to get this issue resolved. Hopefully this story encourages more residents to band together, using all the tools available — including social media, to make their communities better.

 

Support City Council Bill 13-0293

Posted from Housing Policy Watch:

Introduced in the Baltimore City Council by Councilman Henry (District 4), this bill would expand the definition of vacant houses, giving Baltimore Housing the ability to levy fines against blighted nuisance properties faster, and impose harsher penalties against owners who did not comply. (Source: WBAL)

Many of our vacant structures are owned by absentee landlords, banks, or holding companies that have no plans to fix the problems — and have allowed these homes to fall into disrepair. Expanding the city’s ability to fine these owners and hold them accountable should go a long way towards cleaning up some of our blighted neighborhoods.

Two things that also need to happen before January when the bill goes to a vote, in order for this to be a success:

  1. The bill, once law, needs to be enforced. That could mean a line-item increase in Baltimore Housing’s budget for additional qualified housing inspectors.
  2. If these properties are sold at a municipal tax sale when the owners don’t pay the fines, there needs to be strict vetting of the people purchasing the homes, as to not further the chain of irresponsible ownership.

If the city is prepared to do these two things, let’s support this bill and make sure it becomes law. Contact your City Council representative and let them know you want this to pass — and let them know you expect there to be a clear plan for disposition of the properties, once seized.

For City Council district contact information, go here.

Digging into the Backstory: Part One

In the process of doing research into Baltimore’s history, particularly its housing history — one comes across some peculiar, lurid, or just plain interesting news items.  This one, in particular, caught my eye:

News clip from 1895 about Baltimore's slums and brothels.

News clip from 1895 about Baltimore’s slums and brothels.

The text reads as follows:

“That was not a pleasant duty that the ladies of the Social Purity League took upon themselves in Baltimore on Tuesday night, but it was one in the performance of which they learned a good deal about the seamy side of life, and the information they obtained will give them subjects for sermons for years to come.  Baltimore is notorious for its brothels, said to be under the protection of the police, who have been accused of blackmailing the inmates, and of course the more brothels the greater the revenue of the police blackmailer, and he is not going to do anything to suppress them. It required a great deal of courage for those good women to dive into the Baltimore slums, and it is hoped their visit will do a great deal of good.”

How bad were the slums of Baltimore in the late 1800s?

Some demographic information, extracted from a report released by the US Congress in 1894:

25,000 people were counted in a “slum census” conducted in Baltimore.  (The study was also done in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago).

Of those 25,000 “slum dwellers”, almost 41% of them were foreign-born, and close to 20% of them were unable to read or write.  In the slum areas of the city, there was 1 saloon for every 105 residents, about double the number as you’d find in the rest of the city. It’s interesting to note that in Baltimore, the average number of people residing in any one slum dwelling was 7.71.  In New York City, that number skyrocketed all the way to 36.79.

Source:  Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, PA), October 17, 1895
Source: The National Tribune (Washington DC), August 2, 1894, page 4

 

Help Save Janney Street Park

The Baltimore Brew’s newest writer, Danielle Sweeney, did an excellent job of detailing the latest instance of a City Councilperson selling out a constituency for a campaign contribution — in this case a measly thousand bucks — go here to read the article.

In a nutshell, a company (Pompeian Olive Oil) wants to expand its operation in SE Baltimore.  A wonderful thing, to be sure, except doing so would mean taking the land that is currently being used as a neighborhood park.  Many of the neighbors are understandably upset, and have started a petition to save their park.

Some of the comments that follow the article offer some interesting (and in my opinion, viable) alternatives to selling off a park — and selling out a community.

Please sign the petition, or call/email Councilman Brandon Scott and let him know his job is to protect the interests of his constituents, not corporate campaign contributors.

Judge to Slumlord Scott Wizig: Clean Up Your Blight!

As reported by Natalie Sherman in the Baltimore Sun:

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge has ordered an absentee Baltimore landlord to clean up about 50 blighted properties within 90 days, the first ruling since a state law was amended two years ago to make it easier for community groups to sue the owners of problem properties.

Judge Pamela J. White found that 49 properties owned by Scott Wizig and corporate affiliates represented legal nuisances, with “unsafe and uninhabitable” conditions that have not been fixed despite requests by community groups and notices of violations of the building code. Community groups are “entitled” to a judgement, she wrote in the July 31 order.

We’ve written about Scott Wizig many times before, along with his blighted homes in Baltimore. It’s nice to see that other people have taken notice of his neglect in our communities and took action — kudos to the Community Law Center for this win! Considering he was tossed out of Buffalo, NY by a judge — perhaps he’ll leave Baltimore as well.

You can read the full text of the Baltimore Sun article here.