Michael Coleman recently tried to count all the places he lived as a child in a sometimes cash-strapped family. Eighteen, he tallied — or 25, if he included the homes of friends or relatives who took his family in when they couldn't find a decent, affordable rental in Baltimore.
"They simply don't exist," said Coleman, 40. "Either they're not affordable or they're substandard."
Coleman helped gather what activists said was more than 20,000 signatures on petitions that they delivered to City Hall on Wednesday calling for a $20 million investment in affordable housing and another $20 million in jobs to deconstruct vacant houses and improve neighborhoods.
About 100 organizers and residents streamed onto the fourth floor, bearing petitions that they handed to Stephen Kraus, deputy director of the finance department. He shook their hands and listened as they made their pitch for funding and shared stories of residents struggling to afford housing whom they met while canvassing for signatures. Kraus thanked them and said their concerns would be taken into consideration.
"Housing is really a health care issue," said Dr. Gwen DuBois, an internist. Children can suffer lead poisoning, she said, and those who experience homelessness have been found to have shorter life spans.
"The hope is that the city will begin to invest in its own people," she said.
The Baltimore Housing Roundtable, a coalition of progressive and community groups behind the so-called 20/20 campaign, wants the city to issue bonds or otherwise fund the initiatives. The group picked Wednesday to deliver the petitions, which it says were signed by more than 20,000 residents, because it is the one-year anniversary of the election of Mayor Catherine E. Pugh, who on the campaign trail and since has expressed her commitment to affordable housing and jobs taking down Baltimore's vacants.
In addition to electing Pugh, voters last November approved a ballot question that amended the city charter to create an affordable housing trust fund. The fund would be used to develop and maintain housing that is affordable to low-income residents, and advocates want to make sure that that city officials commit dollars to it.
"Now is the time to put their money where their mouths are," said Coleman, an organizer with United Workers. The group, which advocates for fairness in labor, development and other issues, organized the housing roundtable several years ago.
"That movie, 'Jerry Maguire' — this is where I am at this point," Coleman said. "Show me the money."
Pugh, who did not meet with advocates on Wednesday, expressed support for the roundtable's campaign at a rally in May.
"The vision for 20/20 is one that I support," Pugh told the advocates at the War Memorial Building.
Asked Tuesday for comment on the $40 million request, Pugh said in a statement said she is "committed to expanding the options along the spectrum of housing from homelessness to affordable." Through the work of housing officials and their partners, she said, more than 1,000 affordable units are currently in either the planning or construction phases.
"I am committed to this issue and will work with our partners and advocates to explore eligible sources for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund," she said.
Todd Cherkis, another United Workers organizer, said it's time to move forward on the trust fund.
"The voters decided this, this is something the mayor ran on, and there hasn't been a lot of action on it," he said.
Cherkis said advocates unsuccessfully sought a meeting with city budget director Andrew Kleine to discuss funding for the 20/20 proposal, and planned to deliver their petitions to his office. Kleine, who said Tuesday he will leave office at the end of the year, declined to comment.
Cherkis said the director's departure doesn't change the group's goal of gaining input in city budgeting.
"This is really about an agency and a process, not one person," he said.
Cherkis said The Baltimore Sun's yearlong investigation into the city's rent court showed the pressing need for affordable housing assistance. The Sun reported that Baltimore has one of the nation's highest eviction rates and a court system that often fails to protect tenants from dangerous and unhealthy housing conditions. One researcher has estimated that one third of the city's 128,000 rental units are substandard.
"The Sun report was pretty damning," Cherkis said. "And we haven't seen much policy to address that."
Protesters interupt a meeting calling for affordable housing to be included in the Port Covington redeveopment plans. (Natalie Sherman, Baltimore Sun video)
Baltimore is seeing a boom in pricey waterfront apartments — rents at the 414 Light Street tower under construction at the Inner Harbor will start at about $2,000 a month, and go as high as four times as much. But much of the housing that's available for the less affluent is aging, in bad shape or both.
"We are staring down the barrel of an affordable housing crisis in our city," Councilman Zeke Cohen said Wednesday. He and fellow council members Shannon Sneed and Bill Henry welcomed the petition bearers to the city council offices before they walked around the rotunda to the finance offices to deliver the envelopes.
"We do not want to go the way of what D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and all the other cities that have developed, but displaced so many of the working poor people that built those cities," Cohen said. "We want to be a city that is for everyone."
As the activists filed out of City Hall, Henry said he thinks the event will lead to a "good conversation" at City Hall about an issue whose time has come.
"Over the last five years, I've noticed more attention and focus on this issue as it has affected more an more people," he said. Henry said low-income residents in Baltimore have long struggled to afford decent housing, but now that newer residents are seeing how many neighborhoods lack affordable apartments and amenities like coffee shops, the issue is gaining traction.
"When we talk about the affordable housing crisis, what that really means is a lot of young, white people … are now finding out what poorer blacks have known for years," he said.
In addition to an affordable housing fund and the removal of vacants, advocates say the city should fund community land trusts, in which residents rather than developers own parcels in their neighborhoods to develop or oversee affordable housing. There are two such trusts in the city. The roundtable says several communities are in the process of developing their own.
Terrel Askew helped gather signatures for the roundtable's petition.
"I'm hoping by empowering communities to address these issues at the ground level we can build stronger communities," he said. Askew moved from Remington recently after learning the house he was renting in that gentrifying neighborhood was being sold.
"I saw a lot of people who had lived there for a long time who, because of new development, weren't able to stay in the neighborhood," he said. "They couldn't afford it anymore."
Traveling the city as part of the petition drive, Askew said, he met residents living in substandard rentals, in buildings propped up by exterior supports to prevent them from collapsing as one did last year, killing a man sitting in his car, or in rowhouses that were surrounded by vacants.
It brought to mind his own childhood, he said, when his family had moved 11 times by the time he was 10. Some houses had bad plumbing or pipes that would freeze in the winter; one was repeatedly burglarized because a door was easily breached, said Askew, now 30.
Both Askew and Coleman said their parents worked, and received no public housing assistance. As adults themselves, they've seen that having a job is no guarantee that they'll be able to afford a safe home.
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"I miss one paycheck, I'm homeless," said Coleman, who lives in the Cheswolde neighborhood. "I talk to dozens of people a day, I hear that every day."
Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, researched and wrote about the city's issuance of bonds for the housing roundtable's website. He concluded that the city can afford to spend more on affordable housing and taking down vacants, given how large those problems loom.
The public needs more access to the budgeting process, Hill said, to make sure city spending matches community priorities.
"We think the city has the capacity and the moral obligation to shift priorities to permanently affordable housing and deconstructing vacants," he said.
On Baltimore’s tax sale list, there are more than a dozen properties with liens for unpaid bills that have reached more than $1 million. (Baltimore Sun video)