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Housing policies still pin poor in Baltimore, but some escape to suburbs

Housing policies still pin poor in Baltimore, but some escape to suburbs

Danielle Hill has a secret, one she shares with dozens of other residents of Baltimore public housing. It goes like this: They don't live in the city.

Instead, they live in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, in houses purchased by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Thousands more have moved to the counties with special rent subsidies in a companion program.

Hill's family is among nearly 10,000 black women and children who have moved into overwhelmingly white, prosperous suburbs through a court-ordered relocation program designed to combat the intense inner-city segregation and poverty forged by decades of discrimination.

That relocation program — one of the nation's largest — has been discreetly rolled out to avoid the political and community opposition that routinely arises to defeat proposals for building subsidized housing in Baltimore's suburbs. Hill's Cockeysville townhouse, for example, was purchased by the city through a nonprofit organization based in the suburbs, with little notice to elected Baltimore County officials or the public.

"We did it very much under the radar," Amy Wilkinson, fair housing director for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said of the home purchases. "We met very early on with the county executives. They understood we had to do it. Their request was to make sure [the homes] are really scattered and make sure we do it quietly."

The relocations have provided greater opportunities for Hill and thousands of others who were trapped in public housing complexes in Baltimore neighborhoods troubled by drugs, violence and poor schools. But efforts to limit information about the moves highlight the difficulties in working to dismantle Baltimore's segregated, impoverished neighborhoods — even as Freddie Gray's death and the ensuing rioting have focused new attention on the issue.

Against this backdrop, the U.S. Supreme Court in June issued a ruling in a Texas housing case, further opening the door nationwide for more challenges to state and local policies. A month later, the Obama administration noted the unrest in Baltimore as it announced a new fair-housing rule aimed at reducing racially concentrated areas of poverty.

While local officials in the Baltimore area — one of the most segregated in the nation — have ramped up collaborative efforts to meet federal fair-housing standards, they concede that more needs to be done to provide more affordable homes in prosperous neighborhoods. The need is obvious: More than 100,000 people are on waiting lists for subsidized housing in the region, with Baltimore bearing the biggest burden. Most counties have not taken two steps that advocates say are essential: requiring developers to set aside housing for low-income tenants and prohibiting landlords from refusing to accept tenants with federal rent subsidies.

There are two main components to Baltimore's "mobility" campaign, which aims to relocate public housing residents to better neighborhoods. Nearly 3,100 participating families, headed almost entirely by single black mothers, have relocated with special subsidies that are designed for high suburban rents; about 1,300 other families will join them over the next three years. Nearly 50 families, including Hill's, have moved into houses owned by the city housing authority in prosperous county communities; 110 more will soon move to houses in strong city neighborhoods.

Participants in the mobility program receive counseling and other advice on issues ranging from household budgeting to clothing. And despite the large number of families who have moved, the fears most commonly expressed by opponents — rising crime, plummeting property values — have not materialized, research shows.

"Most people don't even know we're [in the suburbs]," said Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, which helped establish the mobility program after winning a landmark federal fair-housing lawsuit in Baltimore known as Thompson v. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A judge ruled that HUD had violated federal law by not taking a regional approach to desegregating public housing. "We're not going to advertise it. The most intense opposition comes when a project is proposed. When it's built and on the ground, you almost never have opposition."

The journey for participating families typically takes them just a few miles beyond Baltimore's borders, but the mothers arrive hoping that thriving suburbs can give their sons and daughters a path out of deeply entrenched poverty.

And nowhere is such a path needed more than in Baltimore, experts say. A Harvard University study released this year showed that Baltimore children, especially boys, had lower odds of escaping poverty than in any other city in the nation.

"I do love it. It's peaceful. I feel safe when [my son is] outside," said Hill, 42, who moved from a public-housing complex in East Baltimore to Cockeysville five years ago. "I still have friends in the city, but when I go visit there I'm like, 'Let me get out of here.' I think the program is a good thing for a person with kids."

But her experience as one of the only black families in her neighborhood has not been without troubles.

"You can tell racism still exists," Hill said, recalling that while getting gas on York Road, someone yelled a racial slur at her from a passing car. "I just smile and keep moving."

The confluence of policy and legal developments in 2015, coupled with recent urban unrest, has given fair-housing advocates hope for change, said former Vice President Walter Mondale. As a Democratic senator five decades ago, Mondale was instrumental in passing the Fair Housing Act shortly after the 1968 riots in cities across the nation, including Baltimore.

He is frustrated that it has taken so long for state and local governments to wake up to their responsibilities. He recalled that the 1974 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said suburban policies in the Baltimore region served as a "white noose" around the city.

Decades later, wide swaths of East and West Baltimore — areas where Gray lived and socialized — remain highly segregated and impoverished. Those areas bear the scars of earlier governmental policies that set boundaries for black neighborhoods and limited mortgage lending.

"I worked closely with that whole Maryland delegation in the Senate and in the White House" decades ago, Mondale said. "We sent a lot of resources into Baltimore for housing. I guess it did some good, but it doesn't sound like it solved the problems."

Former Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs, who served as a settlement adviser for the Thompson case, alluded to that assessment in a recent interview.

"There's a noose around Baltimore City and, as a consequence, we have economic apartheid," Sachs said. "In terms of education, jobs, transportation, housing. You name it. It's been that way for decades. The counties do nothing to accommodate the poor, and nothing changes."

Into the suburbs

Taneeka Richardson, a 32-year-old mother of four boys, grew up in two different public housing developments in Baltimore: Lexington Terrace to stay with her mother, Murphy Homes to stay with her dad. She knows the struggles of parenting in neighborhoods beset with social ills.

Her mother worked two jobs — one for state government and one as a Camden Yards bartender — and Richardson admitted to taking full advantage of the unsupervised time by getting in trouble and eventually dropping out of high school.

"I was bad, I'm not going to lie," she said.

In 2005, at age 22, Richardson found herself sleeping in her mother's basement in a house in Southwest Baltimore. Her first two sons, ages 3 and 5, slept upstairs with four other relatives. The cramped confines, dampened with every rain, provided a wake-up call: "It was time for me to get my own place," she recalled.

Richardson and her children are one of about 3,100 families who have moved through the highly selective mobility program run by the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, a nonprofit established out of the Thompson settlement in 2012. It resettles participants in so-called "opportunity areas" — communities with low levels of subsidized housing, poverty and minorities; most have moved to Baltimore and Howard counties.

The partnership also counsels applicants on finances and landlord relationships before awarding special rent subsidies that are geared toward costlier county rents. Applicants learn skills for managing their finances and improving their credit, as well as how to negotiate and communicate with landlords. They're also taught how to adjust to their white suburban neighbors, and to overcome fears that the suburbs are rife with racism.

Counseling documents one applicant received cover a range of topics, from how best to clean refrigerators to how to make friends with new neighbors and dress appropriately when meeting landlords. One photo shows a woman in a skimpy dress that exposes her breasts, and the materials ask: "Does her dress fit the occasion?"

Still, when Richardson moved to Laurel under the mobility program, her lingering connections to Baltimore led to problems. Her sons were enrolled in day care in the city, she attended classes at Baltimore City Community College and continued to see her city doctor.

When her car broke down, so did her life. "It takes two hours by bus to get from Laurel to Baltimore," she said. "It was a nightmare."

She stayed in Laurel, though she was desperate to move back to the city after her third son was born and space got tight in the townhouse. "My mom wouldn't let me," she said. "She said, 'You're not coming back here.'"

When Richardson moved to a larger home in Columbia, she landed on a street framed by tall trees and broad yards. Her three-bedroom single family house backs up to woods with squirrels and rabbits.

She says her children are thriving in Howard County schools, in part because she can help with homework. On a recent night the boys gathered around a table in her immaculate dining room. Books, papers and binders covered the entire surface as they worked on math and reading assignments.

The program also positioned Richardson for a job that will eventually allow her to give up the government rent subsidy. She got her GED and a bachelor's degree thanks to her ability to be a stay-at-home mom.

Richardson is now working on a master's degree in public health at the University of Maryland, College Park. She says her personal goals are clear: "Go to college, get married, get the house and the white picket fence.

"But I'm working backwards. Had the kids first, got the house through this program, and am now going to college."

Dodging resistance

Baltimore's history of segregated housing dates back to at least the early 20th century. The city holds the dubious distinction of pioneering government-sanctioned residential segregation in America, through a 1911 law that designated entire blocks as white or black. The Supreme Court struck down that law six years later, but private covenants forbidding home sales to minorities in parts of Baltimore and many other communities survived until a high court decision in 1948 banned such practices nationwide.

After World War II, white families began flocking to new suburban homes made affordable by favorable underwriting by the Federal Housing Administration. The U.S. agency, however, did not extend similar terms to blacks living in inner-city neighborhoods that were "redlined" on maps as being risky for mortgages.

Today those same sections of East and West Baltimore are home to the highest concentrations of poverty in Maryland, and the region is the 10th-most "hyper-segregated" metropolitan region in the nation, according to a recent Princeton University study.

For the past three decades the federal government has tried to dismantle concentrated areas of poverty and segregation in Baltimore and other cities by demolishing high-rise public housing and providing Section 8 — now known as Housing Choice — rental vouchers that can be used anywhere landlords accept them.

Yet people rarely use the standard subsidies to move out of poverty-stricken neighborhoods, according to research by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Stefanie DeLuca, who has been studying the Baltimore mobility program for years.

The reasons are well-known, including a lack of affordable rental units in the suburbs. Many suburban landlords refuse to rent to voucher holders, research shows, and only Howard County, Baltimore City and Annapolis have laws prohibiting landlords from turning away tenants because they have rent subsidies.

One short-lived effort to expand options beyond Baltimore's borders was the federal Moving To Opportunity program. It barely got off the ground in the 1990s before politicians and homeowners in Baltimore County rebelled. One county legislator warned in 1994 that thousands of poor black families who needed to be "taught to bathe and how not to steal" were about to flood southeastern sections of the county.

That same year, U.S Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland helped kill the funding to expand the program nationally. Research showed it failed to prevent relocated residents from moving back to the city — less than 25 percent of families who moved to prosperous areas remained four to seven years later.

In 1995, as the city was demolishing its high-rise public housing complexes, the ACLU of Maryland filed the Thompson lawsuit on behalf of 14,000 black residents. The plaintiffs sought to break up the concentration of public housing in poor black neighborhoods. A year later, a consent degree to settle part of the federal case set up a program to disperse public housing tenants — focusing at first on city neighborhoods. It did not take long to generate a backlash.

A plan for families displaced by demolitions to move into just 10 homes in the Hamilton neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore in 2000 sparked outrage. More than 800 residents, most of them white, shouted down housing officials in a public hearing until then-Mayor Martin O'Malley arrived and calmed the crowd with a promise to get the city out of the consent decree.

But the consent decree stood, and the moves proceeded in the city and suburbs. By 2003, the first public housing families were being moved across the city line with special rent subsidies — the beginning of the local mobility program, which has grown to serve thousands of families.

Around the same time, and under court order, the city housing authority hired nonprofit developer Homes for America of Annapolis to buy dozens of houses in prosperous neighborhoods in the city and surrounding counties. The developer was required to maintain the homes so they would not be "identifiable as subsidized housing to minimize objections from the surrounding community," according to a city request for proposals.

City housing officials had no legal obligation to provide public notice in purchasing real estate in other localities. Aware of the uproar over just 10 houses in Northeast Baltimore, Homes for America officials saw no reason to chance a similar protest.

"We just went out and purchased houses. You don't need the counties' approval to go out and purchase houses," said Trudy McFall, founder of Homes for America.

Over the past eight years, the city housing authority spent $19 million to purchase nearly 30 houses in Baltimore County and 16 in Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties, as well as 12 in the city to serve as public housing for Baltimore residents. The authority also annually provides tens of millions of dollars in special rent subsidies to families who moved from city public housing to suburban apartments or houses; this year, that amount was $51 million.

The local mobility program's special rent subsidies have been more effective than Chicago's similar effort in helping families remain in the counties, according to DeLuca's research. Two-thirds of the Baltimore program's families have remained in the new neighborhoods for one to eight years, research shows.

The biggest difference, research shows, has been extensive counseling and a focus on diverse and prosperous "opportunity" communities where voucher holders must live for at least two years. The minimum time used to be one year; it was extended to give families more time to experience the benefits of better neighborhoods.

The local mobility program requires participants to live in neighborhoods where less than 5 percent of houses are subsidized, less than 10 percent of residents are poor and less than 30 percent of the population is minority or black. The now defunct Moving To Opportunity program, by contrast, allowed for higher rates of poverty and did not factor in racial composition.

Participants in the Baltimore mobility program have moved from areas that were on average 80 percent black and 33 percent poor to neighborhoods that were 21 percent black and 8 percent poor, DeLuca's research shows.

Meanwhile, the fears of increased crime coming to suburbia have not materialized. None of the participants in the mobility program lost rent subsidies due to criminal activity in 2015, according to program reports, a finding that supports other research. A 12-year study of 10 large U.S. cities by New York University's Furman Center found that crime did not follow voucher holders; in fact, they generally moved to neighborhoods where crime was already a problem because that's where rents were affordable.

Participants in the Baltimore program have reported in surveys that their health has improved, their children are performing better in schools and their overall quality of life is far better.

"Mobility programs are key for civil rights," said DeLuca, who continues to do research on Baltimore's program. "It's a justice issue to give families a choice."

Baltimore's mobility program, one of 15 across the nation, is praised by housing experts for providing a range of services, including counseling of participants, personal finance advice and help with security deposits. Reaching out to developers and landlords to obtain housing for participants is among the innovations that set the Baltimore program apart, experts say.

According to new research by urban expert David Rusk, Baltimore's mobility program has been instrumental in locating low-income tenants in high-income suburban neighborhoods — exceeding efforts in Cleveland, Denver, Newark, N.J., and Philadelphia. The key was the special rent subsidies, he said.

Bumpy transition

Those who choose to move to what they hope are more prosperous neighborhoods can face a rough transition. Robin Dorsey's biggest issue was pretty shocking.

The 39-year-old expected her new Housing Authority-owned home would be in Baltimore County's Parkville community. Instead, she landed just 10 blocks away, in the city. Still, she praised the neighborhood's safety and the city schools her two children attend.

But Dorsey has been struggling. In the past year she has endured rats, a bedbug infestation and burglars who left her back door unusable.

"Everybody says the same thing: that we're blessed to be here," said Dorsey, who previously lived in Broadway Homes. "But we're here and we're stuck. We need help."

Unlike participants in the mobility voucher program who have the opportunity to move to another apartment, Dorsey and others in homes owned by the city housing authority are stuck unless they can get transferred.

She fears that if she complains too much to the management company, Towner, she could lose her house. But since losing her job at Kmart, she has been unable to pay her bills, including her electricity. She receives $385 in child support, which barely covers her $145 rent, $200 electric bill, food and school supply expenses.

"We have all had our BGE service turned off," she said. "When I get my check, first I pay the rent, then the BGE. Then I gotta kick out money for football and cheerleading. Sometimes I don't pay the BGE because the kids need the money. BGE got cut off, but I got it put back on. I had to borrow money from my sister."

Hill and other women have also struggled to fit in socially in their suburban surroundings.

On one occasion, Hill said, a county police officer came to her home, looking for her boyfriend, who is black. A neighbor had called 911 to complain that he was videotaping her with his phone while standing outside Hill's townhouse.

The neighbor eventually apologized, Hill said. But Hill was in no mood, explaining that her boyfriend was simply looking at his phone. "Why not just come and talk to me? Why call the cops?"

Still, the neighborhood is far better than Latrobe and Douglass Homes on Baltimore's Eastside, where she lived most of her life. There are better schools, and Hill said her 9-year-old son's health has improved.

The boy was routinely hospitalized for asthma attacks that she blamed on Latrobe's heating system. Nearly 20 percent of children in Baltimore have asthma, compared with the national average of 9.4 percent, data show.

The move was hardest on her daughter, who was 13 when they arrived. While the neighborhood public schools are among the state's best, Hill's daughter was uncomfortable in high school because she had no black teachers.

"It was a struggle to have her realize she'd be going to a better school," Hill said. "She's now enrolled at Community College of Baltimore County for nursing."

Under the radar

To help ensure the mobility's program's success, Towner has employed a "resident services case manager" funded by an Abell Foundation grant to help the women find jobs, prepare resumes and get transportation to interviews.

A 2012 report to the foundation on the manager's work mirrored positive findings with the mobility voucher program. Families who moved have generally remained in the suburbs, and employment, income, school performance and the health of residents have all improved, according to the report.

Still, some struggled to pay utility bills in their new, larger homes.

That overall success impressed Stephen Norman, a national expert unfamiliar with such an approach.

"Owning units in the surrounding counties — it is very unusual and very original," said Norman, president of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities and executive director of the King County Housing Authority near Seattle. "It's the kind of stuff you have to do under the radar. This is why these types of successes don't get publicized."

Some property owners who sold houses to Homes for America said they felt duped by the transaction.

In 2010, Rudolph Rossello sold his White Marsh townhouse for $242,500 to a corporate entity that Homes for America set up to formally own the suburban homes.

Rossello said he was unaware he was also selling to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City until late in the process. His neighbors were not happy, because they feared crime would increase and property values would decrease, he said.

"I got a lot of grief from the neighbors," Rossello said. "We didn't know what was going on. We thought Homes for [America] was some rental group. I just felt like it was misleading."

Markell Hampton, 31, who moved into Rossello's former home, said the neighbors have been fine. Her main stumbling block was her own fear.

"I was scared of a change, of not having anyone out there. No family, nothing," she said. "That was my biggest worry."

Hampton was living in Monastery Gardens in Southwest Baltimore until August 2010, when she moved with her a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to White Marsh. Soon she was floundering: her children's school hours didn't match her work schedule and she had no one to watch them before and after classes.

She asked housing officials if she could move back to the city.

Hampton still lives in White Marsh. She stuck it out because she believes safe streets are better for her children. "I don't want to leave now," she said.

But she remains tightly tethered to the city. She works at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in East Baltimore and her children attend a charter school in West Baltimore. She is considering moving the children to Baltimore County schools but is not yet sure how she will manage — and pay for — someone to watch them before and after school.

Now she wants to take another big step: home ownership.

"I've been saving my money," she said.

'Progress is slow'

Fair housing advocates and experts agree that it would be easier for the mobility program to disperse subsidized housing throughout the Baltimore region if there were more affordable rental housing in the counties. But restrictive county zoning, more expensive suburban real estate and opposition have hindered the supply for decades.

For example, Baltimore County, the largest locality in the region, has no county-owned public housing units, while there are 11,000 in the city. The county has 25,000 people on a years-long waiting list for rental vouchers.

Trudy McFall, founder and chairman of the board of Homes for America, was disappointed that HUD did not take action after the Baltimore County Council in 2013 rejected $1 million in low-income housing tax credit funds to finance the nonprofit's development of 45 townhouses and five single-family homes in Rosedale. Opponents to the development said they were fearful the residents, including those who were receiving rent subsidies, would increase crime.

"We haven't seen any muscle from HUD," McFall said.

"We lost $200,000 on that project."

A similar controversy arose in January in Anne Arundel County. The County Council eliminated a special exception to local zoning that would have allowed Enterprise Homes to move forward on an 84-unit, mixed-income "workforce housing" development near Pasadena. Amid debate over the project, County Council Chairman John Grasso said the project would have helped "freeloaders," adding that "if you can't afford it, you can't live here."

In recent years, consultants hired by Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties have highlighted another obstacle to affordable housing, saying the counties should consider enacting legislation that prohibits landlords from rejecting tenants with rent subsidies. Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties all have their own local versions of the "source-of-income" discrimination law, as do the cities of Annapolis, Baltimore, Frederick, Washington — and 30 other localities across the nation and 11 states.

"The whole idea of the [subsidy] program is to give folks choice," said Thomas Carbo, director of housing for Howard County. "But if any landlord can say 'no' because they have a [subsidy], that defeats the purpose."

Another way to increase the supply of affordable housing is "inclusionary" housing rules that give developers financial incentives to set aside units for low-income tenants.

Only Howard County and Baltimore City have such laws in the region, but experts routinely cite Montgomery County's program as one of the best in the nation, generating hundreds of affordable homes per year.

"I haven't seen any impressive strides yet" by Baltimore-area counties, said Patrick Maier, executive director of the Innovative Housing Institute, "Progress is slow."

Maier's organization and others filed a housing discrimination complaint against the state in 2011; a similar complaint was filed against Baltimore County in the same year. The complaints to HUD say state and county agencies violated fair housing laws through policies that direct rent subsidies and projects financed with low-income housing tax credits toward high-poverty, minority communities. Settlement talks are ongoing.

Groups involved in the mobility program say opening up more housing in prosperous parts of the suburbs is crucial.

Since the rent subsidy program began in 2003, the Abell Foundation has provided tenants with nearly $2 million in security deposits. But it does not award such support to tenants who choose to live in the city. Abell Executive Director Robert C. Embry Jr. said the children benefit most from better-performing school systems in the counties.

Advocates say the stakes are too high for the entire region to continue to take incremental changes.

"About 22,374 children (about 8,600 of them at the formative age below 6) are still living in extreme poverty neighborhoods, Baltimore's most dangerous environments," stated a report published last year by a fair-housing coalition including the ACLU Foundation and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said April's unrest in the city "reinforced the need to move more forcibly. We have done a good job of providing housing for low-income elderly and promoting home ownership for moderate and low-income residents. Now we are going to more affirmatively address the needs of low-income rental families," he said.

Negotiations over the housing complaint are close to a resolution, he said. But there are sticking points, including calls for an inclusionary housing law and rules prohibiting landlords from rejecting potential tenants because they have rent subsidies.

The county has taken some steps to tackle the housing issue this year. For example, it committed $9 million to a fund to provide incentives to developers that build mixed-income housing in prosperous neighborhoods near public transit and job centers.

Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi Housing Association, said landlords are not opposed to tenants who have rent subsidies. Landlords, he said, object to the bureaucracy that comes with getting paid directly by the government, rather than having the subsidies go to the residents.

Landlords also say that "source of income" discrimination laws would impose too many bureaucratic hassles to be economically feasible, and that rent subsidies do not eliminate all the risk of a lease, because tenants usually must contribute some money as well.

Leonard Parrish, housing director for Harford County, said that county is working to locate new subsidized housing in high-opportunity areas. "It is true that most of our subsidized housing is currently situated in areas along Route 40 corridor that have impacted areas of concentrations of minorities and/or low income citizens, but the location of subsidized units is the result of historical public policies which … we are working along with a larger group to change," he wrote in an email.

Anne Arundel County has no plans to implement inclusionary zoning. Instead, it recently took steps to provide financial incentives such as fee waivers and favorable financing to improve the supply of affordable housing, a spokesman said. In May, the county also approved a plan that pledges to use federal funds outside of existing concentrations of poverty, subsidized homes and minorities.

Federal involvement

Such efforts could help the counties head off fair housing challenges that gained further ammunition this year.

In June, the Supreme Court confirmed lower-court rulings that said state and local governments violate federal housing laws if they spend HUD money on policies that perpetuate segregation. The court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that a challenge to housing policies needs only to prove that they have discriminatory impact, not that there was an intent to discriminate. In that case, advocates showed that the Texas housing agency located low-income housing tax credits in high-poverty, minority neighborhoods.

In July, President Obama announced a new HUD rule requiring local governments to set goals to reduce housing segregation in coordination with advocates and residents. HUD is now providing unprecedented access to data that will help officials map out the locations of their subsidized housing to see if local policies are perpetuating segregation.

HUD has acknowledged the need for better enforcement of federal fair-housing laws.

"The focus is for communities to heal themselves and to identify those things that would work best," said Bryan Greene, deputy assistant secretary for HUD's fair housing office.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning group, has rallied all of the housing agencies in the area to support the dispersal of low-income housing. That effort has paid off: HUD is set to approve a new program in which those agencies contribute rental vouchers to a pool that can be used to provide incentives to developers to build affordable housing in prosperous neighborhoods.

In 2014, the council and advocates convinced state legislators to limit a locality's approval power over some state-financed affordable housing. Had that change come sooner, it would have prevented the Baltimore County Council from scuttling the Rosedale development.

The Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership and the city housing authority, meanwhile, have already had success on their own with awarding funding to specific affordable housing. They have contributed $2.8 million to landlords and developers in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties to set aside homes for the mobility program's special rent subsidies.

Among them: more than $1.7 million for 20 units in Howard County's Burgess Mill Station, $455,000 for seven homes in Baltimore County; $350,000 for 10 units in Anne Arundel County's Berger Square development, and $300,000 for five homes in Harford County.

Such investments will replace the program used by the city housing authority to buy homes in suburban counties; that has become too costly, officials said.

Skolnik and landlords who have worked with the mobility voucher program said it works better than standard rental subsidy programs thanks to the counseling potential tenants receive. The Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership also employs a staff member to recruit landlords, maintain relationships with them and mediate issues with tenants.

John Ealy has owned a four-bedroom townhouse in Laurel in Howard County since 2013. After learning about the mobility rent subsidies, he called and quickly found a tenant.

"One thing that I loved was that they found people for me," Ealy said. "When one person moved out, I'd let them know and they'd find me a new tenant."

But earlier this year the program stopped providing that service because Ealy's townhouse is in a part of Laurel that is no longer classified as an "opportunity area" due to increased concentrations of poverty, subsidized houses or minorities.

The property was vacant from August until November, and during that time, Ealy found that potential tenants had problems that participants in the mobility program never did. "I was getting people who didn't have good credit and other issues that I didn't want to deal with," he said.

Still waiting

There are nearly 7,000 people on the waiting list for the mobility program's special rent subsidies — and a chance to move to the suburbs. Each day they file into the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership's office on North Charles Street to fill out applications for a new home.

Candus Johnson, 26, is one of those women. She has already taken steps to provide her 5-year-old daughter with good schools and safe surroundings — an important consideration in a year that has seen a record number of city homicides.

They live with Johnson's mother in the Loch Raven community in Northeast Baltimore, and Johnson's daughter attends a charter school. But Johnson, who has been on the waiting list for six months, wants to live in Baltimore County to be closer to her job in Owings Mills at Edible Arrangements.

"That would be a great spot for me and my daughter," she said.

Her mother, who relied on subsidized housing when she was younger, has a different goal. "She wants me to break the curse" of public assistance, Johnson said.

Others on the waiting list still face the desperate living conditions in public housing that the mobility program was designed to address.

Takeesha Rivers, 37, got on the list last year, eager to move her children out of the city. The mother of two has lived in public housing in Baltimore for 18 years, almost entirely in Gilmor Homes — where Freddie Gray was arrested in April. Conditions there were "hell," she said: broken appliances, rats, violence and drug dealing.

Rivers graduated from Coppin State University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice but has not been able to find a job. Meanwhile, behavior problems and other issues led her to place her children temporarily in foster care.

"Once a month you have to show you're saving money," she said. "It takes a long time to get your house. It's a good program if you can get through it and all the steps."

Rivers may have run out of time. Earlier this year, the program warned that she failed to prove she was still saving money and could be dropped from the waiting list. On Tuesday Rivers is scheduled to be evicted from Rosemont Homes because she is unable to pay her rent.

That would jeopardize the return of her 15-year-old son, Kyaniel, who would love to live in the county to attend better schools.

Rivers knows that her son is among those who can get a better life through the mobility program — and dodge the problems of living in a neighborhood beset with crime.

"I feel like my kids are going to get hooked on drugs or get killed if I don't move them out of here," she said. "I know what these poverty areas can do to you."

ddonovan@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2016, The Baltimore Sun

Intractable problems

As part of its continuing coverage of Freddie Gray's death, The Baltimore Sun is examining some of the intractable problems that affected his life — and still trouble thousands of city residents. This series of occasional articles will focus on lead poisoning, the drug trade and other topics.

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