Funding affordable housing

Baltimore is one of the few large cities that doesn't have an affordable housing trust fund.

The Baltimore real estate market has long been characterized by a shortage of safe, affordable housing, a situation that hits low-income households particularly hard. At the same time, the city is saddled with thousands of deteriorating, abandoned and vacant properties that blight the neighborhoods around them and serve as magnets for crime. City officials would dearly love to rehabilitate those homes and make them available to residents at rents they can afford. But the money has never been there to cover the construction and maintenance costs such an undertaking would require.

That's why housing advocates were gratified by the Board of Elections' announcement this week that they had gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot in November that could greatly strengthen the city's ability to fund affordable housing. The measure would empower the City Council to create an affordable housing trust fund whose goal would be to encourage developers and nonprofits to construct new homes with rents within the reach of the poorest households.

The initiative that will appear on the November ballot takes the form of an amendment to the City Charter. Currently, the City Council can raise new revenues through taxes and fees, but it can't designate where that money goes. The proposed change would allow the council to earmark any new revenues specifically for the housing trust fund and no other purpose.

The advantage of such an arrangement is that it gives the trust fund a designated source of income regardless of the ups and downs of the municipal budget cycle. The trust would also be able to accept donations from federal and state agencies as well as contributions from foundations and private donors. Advocates have proposed a 12-member board appointed by the mayor with input from the public to oversee such a trust, while the day-to-day administration of the fund would be managed by the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development.

The fund's efforts would target two groups of residents, one composed of people earning less than 50 percent of the median income in the Baltimore area, and another whose incomes fall below 30 percent of the area median income — a much lower income level than the developers of Port Covington have set as a goal for their affordable housing commitment. That project may increase the supply of moderate-income housing in Baltimore, but the units produced would still be unaffordable for the majority of the city's poorest residents.

The idea of an affordable housing trust fund isn't new, nor is it unique to Baltimore. Across the country there are more than 770 similar initiatives that work with developers and nonprofit groups to increase the supply of affordable housing using revenues collected in affordable housing trust funds. In Maryland, Montgomery and Howard counties have operated such programs for decades, as does neighboring Washington, D.C. If voters approve Baltimore's charter amendment in November advocates are ready to work with the new City Council to figure out which revenue sources they could tap to fund Baltimore's effort. Proponents have suggested taxing Airbnb rentals in the city, which might or might not be workable or sufficient, but such details are less important at this point than creating the legal structure for the fund.

The fact that more than 18,000 residents signed the petition — nearly double the number needed to get on the ballot — suggests this is an idea whose time has come. In fact, it's probably well overdue; Baltimore is one of few large cities without such a fund. The details need to be fleshed out, but the need this proposal targets is undeniable.

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