Baltimore needs a 'paradigm shift' in approach to affordable housing

With one third of Baltimore households teetering on the edge of losing their homes and many neighborhoods plagued by vacants, food deserts, underperforming schools and crime, we need systemic solutions now. The Sun's investigation "Dismissed: Tenants lose, landlords win in Baltimore's rent court" confirmed a familiar reality: Our families are trapped in a revolving door of unaffordable, dilapidated housing in part because, while landlords are often represented in court by professional agents, tenants must represent themselves or hire a lawyer or person supervised by a lawyer.

Public Justice Center, Jews United for Justice and other allies look forward to continuing our work with the judiciary and a work group of stakeholders, including landlords, to simplify court forms, offer additional judicial training and provide tenants access to more legal resources. Real change to the status quo, however, begins with demanding the political courage to implement meaningful due process protections in eviction cases: a minimum number of days' notice of a trial date, dismissal of eviction cases with defective lead paint compliance, consistent landlord accountability in court, and a right to counsel for indigent tenants. Such courage was lacking in Annapolis this past General Assembly session when even a modest due process bill that had the support of many landlord groups died in the Senate.

A right to counsel in eviction/habitability cases would require significant up-front funds from the city and/or state, or a fee charged to landlords when filing eviction cases. Yet recent studies, including one in New York City, have concluded that the investment would be more than paid back through reduced shelter costs to the city — not to mention a host of other economic benefits to both the city and affected individuals, including greater job stability for adults and educational stability for children.

Other proactive solutions include increasing the funds available to tenants through the Department of Social Services to stop evictions and expanding Baltimore City's landlord licensing requirement for multi-family buildings to all rental units. We see some of the worst housing conditions in older rowhomes, particularly those that have been divided into two units, yet landlords of those properties are not currently required to have a license. Obtaining a license in Baltimore City involves passing an annual health and safety inspection by Baltimore Housing and Community Development. Numerous jurisdictions, including Baltimore and Howard Counties, require one- and two-unit properties to be inspected and licensed. Baltimore City should extend its licensing requirement to all rental units to ensure the health and safety both of tenants and the surrounding neighborhood. The law should be simple: If any landlord doesn't pass an annual inspection, then they can't file a complaint for eviction.

Providing tenants a level playing field in court and demanding accountability from landlords is a good start. But in the long run, we need a paradigm shift in our politics around affordable housing and community development. The solution to homelessness is housing. The solution to neighborhoods plagued by vacants, crime, segregation, underperforming schools and a lack of economic opportunity is comprehensive, inclusive neighborhood revitalization. Until we collectively prioritize the creation of community-driven, quality housing that is affordable to all incomes in thriving neighborhoods, we are not attacking the root cause. The Baltimore Housing Roundtable and over 100 allies have called for a new vision of fair development to implement these solutions based on human rights principles. The first step known as "20/20" calls on the city to allocate $20 million annually in capital funds to deconstruct vacants and rebuild with parks, urban farms and other community uses, as well as $20 million annually in capital funds to develop neighborhood-driven, permanently affordable housing. Permanently affordable housing includes homeownership and rentals in a variety of shared equity frameworks including community land trusts, deed-restricted housing and co-ops. Models for success, such as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston, must be replicated.

A United Not Blighted event, to explore the roots of this human rights crisis and develop the solutions, will be held May 13 at 2 p.m. at the War Memorial (101 N. Gay St.).

Matt Hill (hillm@publicjustice.org) and Zafar Shah are attorneys with the Public Justice Center; Molly Amster is the Baltimore director of Jews United For Justice.

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