A $225 million investment in Baltimore

Op-ed: A $225 million investment in housing vouchers would help Baltimore's poor and the economy.

Recently in Baltimore, I had the chance to hear 2015 MacArthur Genius Fellow Matthew Desmond, author of "Evicted," discuss his research on the impact of evictions on low-income households and how crucial addressing this issue is for alleviating poverty in the U.S.. The statistics are sobering: 1 in 5 African American women will experience an eviction in her lifetime, and low-income households with children are three times more likely to be evicted.

I'll admit I was skeptical that I would learn anything new from his talk. I oversee the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance within the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, where we tracked evictions by neighborhoods from 2000-2009 in our annual Vital Signs report. Today, there are as many eviction cases in the court system as there are renters in Baltimore, according to the Public Justice Center, , and many local entities have been working on eviction reform. We, like Mr. Desmond, know this is a problem.

What he brought to us that we needed, however, was a sense of urgency to think big. "You can't fix poverty in America if we don't fix housing," Mr Desmond said. Nationwide, only 1 out 4 households who qualify for housing assistance actually receives it in America. He offered up a very bold solution: Provide housing choice vouchers to every household living in poverty today.

Our research at BNIA-JFI has pointed us in the same direction. In Baltimore, we have roughly 10,000 households with a housing voucher, and 15,000 households on a wait list for a voucher. Because the voucher has the same value anywhere in the city, households with a voucher are welcomed by property owners in neighborhoods that would typically command an equal or often lower rent on the private rental market — the same households those on the wait list are seeking to rent.

Property owners in these neighborhoods are more attracted to voucher holders because they are presumed to have a more steady capability of paying rent than those who do not have a voucher, and landlords actually compete for the lucky few who have them. I have seen how this unnecessary scrambling causes anxiety for non-voucher holders who are trying to obtain or hang on to housing in decent neighborhoods without assistance — an often difficult struggle.

According to the latest Vital Signs report, the top three neighborhoods in Baltimore with high housing voucher use also have the highest percentage of renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent, which means even these lower-priced units are unaffordable for many.

We at BNIA-JFI were inching toward the policy recommendation of housing vouchers for all who qualify, eliminating the wait list, when 2015's civil unrest took place in Baltimore. We put together some discussion points on the housing problem — the data, the pros of adopting such a policy, the back-of-the-envelope costs of accommodating 15,000 more households. The estimate is about $225 million.

It's fair to say that in order to implement bold solutions, locally or nationally, we need to be well-organized and multi-sectored to make our case. Local leaders, foundations and housing advocates are not yet coalescing around this idea as a policy outcome, however.

The good news is that I believe we can get to political agreement, based on the economic impact such a move would have. Getting everyone off the housing voucher waitlist is actually only secondarily a poverty-alleviation strategy. It is primarily a local community- and economic-development strategy. The vouchers given to those on the wait list would then go to local property owners, who are operating an income-generating business with their properties. An injection of $225 million into Baltimore's economy would help not only the 15,000 household on the voucher wait list but also those who rent housing to them. The city's housing stock could be brought up to building code compliance. And the assessed value of homeowners' properties in the surrounding neighborhood could climb, bringing more properties into the tax-paying category. Essentially, this expense would be an investment in the city's real estate in general.

We need to end the economy of scarcity that is affordable housing in Baltimore. The ultimate solution is to address the decades-long housing voucher wait list. We can make this bold vision happen, if we work together. The solution is not so far off as it may first appear.

Seema D. Iyer is associate director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute and program director for UBs bachelor's degree in Real Estate & Economic Development. Her email is siyer@ubalt.edu.

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