It's growing increasingly difficult for the poorest families in Baltimore to find affordable rental housing, and some housing advocates worry new housing policies such as privatization could make the problem worse.
An analysis by the Urban Institute found a yawning gap between the number of low-income renter households and affordable units available in every jurisdiction in the country.
In Baltimore City in 2012, there were 43 affordable units available per 100 extremely low-income households, down from 58 in 2000, according to the study published last week. The number dropped to 16 in Howard County in 2012 from 38 a dozen years earlier.
The forces behind the widening gap vary. Many experts say the gap comes down to money: The private market rarely builds or rehabilitates units for the poorest families, cities and states can't afford it, and federal spending hasn't kept pace.
"You can only house the really low-income with a significant cash subsidy, and the question is: Where is that money going to come from?" said Robert Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner who is now president of the Abell Foundation."Housing was only provided when the federal government made money available, and the federal government is reducing its role in this area."
The Urban Institute's report came out the same week the Housing Authority of Baltimore City disclosed a plan to sell 22 of its high-rises — nearly 40 percent of the city's stock of public housing — to developers that would modernize the facilities. The plan raised concerns that that might further reduce the availability of public housing among some advocates.
The Washington-based think tank's report defined extremely low-income as households earning less than 30 percent of an area's median income — meaning less than $25,700 a year for a family of four in 2012 throughout the Baltimore area. Affordability is measured as housing that costs less than a third of a household's income.
The number of such families rose by as much as 10 percent in Carroll County and 60 percent in Baltimore County during the 12-year period, according to the analysis. Meanwhile, the supply of affordable units in the counties fell drastically, driven in part by surging demand for rentals at all income levels.
In Baltimore City, the number of these low-income families increased just 2 percent, but the affordable rental supply fell by about 24 percent, with much of that drop occurring before 2006, the Urban Institute found.
The study's count of available units does not include what are considered substandard units or affordable apartments occupied by higher-income households.
For the families that do rent affordable units, federal programs are critical: Nationwide, 97 percent of the 3.26 million affordable units available to extremely low-income renters receive federal assistance, the institute estimated. Local waiting lists for some housing voucher programs are thousands of people long — 25,000 households in Baltimore County alone.
But since the 1980s, federal housing policy has shifted from deep subsidies to supporting private developers with tax credits and public financing in exchange for rent limits on some of their apartments. That has limited funds for public housing and Section 8 vouchers that guarantee rent does not exceed 30 percent of a qualified family's income.
The new programs allow landlords to rent subsidized units to families with a wider range of incomes, still below an area median income. The looser requirements assure broader access to affordable housing and help avoid concentrations of poverty, policymakers said.
"There are people at different income levels that need assistance, and we try to make sure that we've got integrated housing opportunities," said Patricia Rynn Sylvester, director of multifamily housing for the state's Department of Housing and Community Development.
The policy changes have left out the poorest families, said Trudy McFall, chairman of Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America and president of the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition
"It's good to have housing that's more of a mix of incomes," she said. "The problem is we're not beginning to replace very low-income units with these new programs."
The state provides incentives for developers competing for the tax credits to reserve more units for the poorest families and has partnered with the Weinberg Foundation to devote some funds to units for families at 15 percent or less of area median income, Sylvester said.
Across the country, housing officials are moving to sell public housing units to private developers, just as Baltimore said it would do last week. Proponents say it will raise millions needed to renovate the properties, in part by allowing the public units to access the tax credit financing.
The city's federal funds for public housing capital projects have fallenfrom $30 million in 1997 to $12.8 million this year, said Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.
In addition to Baltimore's plan, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development documents show privatization projects from housing authorities across the state, including applications from Anne Arundel and Howard counties.
Some housing advocates said they worry private ownership will exacerbate the shortage for the poorest families, allowing developers to reduce the number of units overall or steer housing toward families further up the income ladder.
"I can't really speak definitively about that, but one would always be concerned," said Jeff Singer, former CEO of Health Care for the Homeless who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "It's a little difficult to know precisely, because I am operating with a lack of information from the Housing Authority. They've been so secretive about the process that I don't know what sort of contracts they'll be signing with project developers and how they will limit the ability to rent to higher incomes."
The average income of families in Baltimore public housing is about $12,000 a year, according to the Housing Authority.
Spokeswoman Cheron Porter said officials do not expect the makeup of tenants to change with privatization. The authority's income-limit calculations will remain the same, and privatized units will go to households on its waiting list, currently 28,000 families long, she said.
The units will operate like so-called "project-based" Section 8 vouchers, she said.
"With a poverty rate at or above 25 percent for the city of Baltimore and our ongoing history of serving the most vulnerable population, we would not expect [income composition] to change," she said.
McFall, whose Homes for America is one of the nonprofits participating in Baltimore's privatization program, said it could preserve the number of housing units for the poorest families depending on how local authorities implement the program.
Moreover, she said, privatization will mean more units for the poorest families could access a state-administered pool of subsidized financing.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's new budget seeks $24 million for the Rental Housing Works program, which provides state financing for private affordable housing projects. If funded at that level, $6 million will be reserved for the converted public housing units, according to the state.
"However this budget comes out, we will be using more of the federal and state resources that have tended to go to moderate incomes, and more of them will go to preserve, maintain or rebuild housing that serves people who get a deep subsidy," McFall said.
But, she said, that doesn't mean she is optimistic about the affordable-housing shortage.
"It's creating better housing, and it might create more moderate income housing, but it isn't creating new housing units for [families] at 30 percent or below," she said. "And therein is why our shortage grows and grows."