The hidden housing crisis


THE UGLY facts of Baltimore's low-income housing crisis were uncovered in stark and painstaking detail this week in a report by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Yet shocking as this portrait of federal irresponsibility and neglect is, the statistics don't tell the half of it.

The report found that nearly four out of five poor households in the Baltimore area pay more than 30 percent of their disposable income for housing -- the maximum considered affordable under federal guidelines. Moreover, about three in five of Baltimore's poor households paid 50 percent or more of their income on housing.

The crisis affects poor whites and poor blacks about equally, with 64 percent of poor white households and 57 percent of poor black households spending at least 50 percent of their income on housing.

But the impact on the black community is far greater overall, since blacks are more likely than whites to be poor. Some 21 percent of black households in Baltimore are poor, compared to just 7 percent of white households.

The researchers used the federal government's official definition of poverty in determining the number of poor households in the Baltimore area. This year, the government set the poverty line at $10,400 a year for a family of three.

The government's monthly grant under Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the basic welfare program, is $406 for a mother with two children. Yet the current fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Baltimore area is $547 a month -- $141 more than the family's entire welfare benefit.

And there lies the even grimmer reality behind the report's already grim statistics. Bad as they are, statistics about the housing crisis mask an even greater social crisis.

To see why, consider the example above of the single mother on welfare with two children. Even if she could find a two-bedroom apartment for $400 a month -- considerably less than the fair market rental for such units in Baltimore -- she would have only $6 a month left for everything else -- utilities, transportation, food, clothing, etc.

Obviously no family can live on $6 a month. If effect, the high cost of housing, coupled with the relatively low level of benefits, forces people to choose between having a roof over their heads or food in their stomachs.

But even that isn't the whole story. One clue to what's missing is contained in a deceptively innocuous-sounding paragraph in the report about the demographic characteristics of poor households.

"Poor households in Baltimore," the researchers state, "were relatively small in size: more than two in five were single-person households. Four of five poor households had three or fewer people. Just one in five had four or more persons."

The numbers, derived from Census data, are almost certainly accurate. Yet one of the first things anyone who walks through a poor neighborhood will note is that the streets seem to be literally overflowing with people.

If such a visitor were to go inside any of the houses along the way, he often would find two and sometimes three or more families all living in a single, overcrowded apartment.

There is no great mystery to this discrepancy between the statistical portrait of poor households as small, and the visual reality of dwellings chockablock with people.

From the census-takers' point of view, a single mother and her two children do indeed constitute a household for administrative purposes. But from the point of view of the single mother, there simply is no way she and her children can make ends meet without someone to share the cost of rent and utilities.

That may mean doubling up in an apartment with another single mother with children. Sometimes it means sharing living expenses with a relative or parent. Or it may mean taking in a boarder, or several boarders.

In any event the result is apt to be overcrowding, with all its attendant ills -- increased stress, lack of privacy, a greater risk to children of emotional, physical or sexual abuse from other household members.

In the worst case, poor women have been driven to take desperate risks -- even allowing their apartments to be used as as shooting galleries and crack dens by drug dealers -- in order to scrape together enough to pay the rent and put food on the table.

That is the reality behind the statistics. And addressing the crisis will take nothing less than a massive federal effort to increase the supply of affordable housing -- something Republican administrations of the past decade have consistently refused to do.

Throughout the 1980s, when the number of poor households grew steadily as the supply of affordable housing dwindled, Ronald Reagan and George Bush piously insisted the free market alone was capable of solving the nation's housing crisis.

Well, the '80s are over, and it's clear the market failed to deliver. Now economists are just discovering what poor families in Baltimore have known for a long time:

If for whatever reason you are either unable or unwilling to make the bad bargains that leave you and your children in dilapidated, overcrowded housing -- and thus at greater risk for a broad range of debilitating social ills -- the chances are quite good that you'll wind up homeless at the end of the month.

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