Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh publicly backed advocates' calls Saturday for her administration to issue $40 million in bonds annually for affordable housing and deconstruction projects — a move activists say would cut down on the problems of joblessness and homelessness.
About 200 people rallied at Baltimore's War Memorial Building in favor of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable's "20/20 Campaign," which calls for the city to dedicate $20 million in public bonds to an affordable-housing trust fund each year and $20 million in public bonds annually to take down vacant homes and fund projects that create green space.
Pugh told the crowd she is troubled by the levels of homelessness and unemployment she sees in Baltimore.
"We cannot afford to have people living on the streets of our city," the mayor said. "Regardless of what your status is, everybody deserves a place to live. ... The vision for 20/20 is one that I support. When we lift the least, we lift all of us."
The advocacy group United Workers formed the Baltimore Housing Roundtable in 2013 by bringing together 25 organizations to address affordable-housing issues.
In addition to the $40 million in annual bonds, the group recommends the city establish a land bank to speed up the conversion of vacant properties to affordable housing, and give priority to ex-offenders for training and employment working on such projects. It advocated a process called "decontruction," rather than demolition of vacant properties, to provide more jobs and recycle building materials.
"We're not asking you to do this for us. We're asking you to do this with us," said Danise Jones-Dorsey, a member North East Housing Initiative, which is pushing for the redevelopment of vacant properties in that part of the city. "Permanent affordable housing is the desire of the people."
The calls for investment in affordable housing come as The Baltimore Sun has published the results of its yearlong investigation into how low-income renters are treated in the city.
The Sun's investigation found that Baltimore's rent court routinely works against tenants, even when inspectors have found significant code violations: leaking roofs, no heat, infestations of insects or rodents and suspected lead paint hazards.
Matt Hill, chairman of Baltimore Housing Roundtable's policy committee, said rent court is "overflowing" and it shows the failure of "trickle-down economics." He said a multimillion-dollar investment in taking down vacant houses and building affordable properties would provide good jobs and build up neighborhoods.
Over the past three years, Baltimore's economy has added about 12,000 jobs, the sixth consecutive year of job growth after decades of declines. But the growth in jobs has yet to lift up Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.
A quarter of Baltimore residents live at or below the poverty line, including one-third of all the city's children. More than half of the city's renters pay more than one-third of their income for housing, a level advocates say is unaffordable.
LaQeisha Greene, a Harlem Park resident and United Workers leader who is advocating for the city to invest more in affordable housing, said she has had to move 27 times in 35 years. She said she's encountered lead paint and mold in rental properties.
"One day, I want my family to have real roots in Baltimore. We need to address head-on the disinvestment that has allowed so many to be displaced in Baltimore," she said.
Several City Council members attended the rally, including Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, Kris Burnett, John Bullock, Shannon Sneed and Mary Pat Clarke.
Clarke said she believes there would be support on the City Council for the advocates' proposals.
"It's worth the investment," she said. "We need affordable housing that stays affordable."