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Affordable housing advocates push for trust fund, money to fill it

Advocates ask voters to sign off on an account to create affordable housing. Funding it is another matter.

Baltimore voters will be asked in November to approve the creation of a trust fund to develop and maintain housing that extremely low-income residents can afford. But that is only a first step. If the fund were approved, advocates still would have to persuade city officials to put money in it.

A coalition of affordable-housing activists is looking for potential sources of revenue. As they work to persuade voters to approve the trust fund, they are also floating ideas such as a new tax on vacation rentals and dedicating public bonds to fill it.

Odette Ramos, a chief backer of the proposed charter amendment, says the point of the fund would be to reduce the number of homeless people in Baltimore and to help more families become self-sufficient.

"There is a housing crisis in Baltimore," said Ramos, director of the Community Development Network of Maryland. "Doing nothing is not an option."

Shantress Wise, 42, lives on disability benefits. She stayed in shelters, family members' homes and halfway houses for years until she found two roommates to split the $750 rent for a two-bedroom apartment above a barbershop in the Belair-Edison neighborhood.

Wise said her bedroom — the apartment's living room — is cozy. But she dreams of a larger space where her four grandchildren could visit and have an area to play.

"I have struggled with housing," Wise said. She is a member of an advocacy group, United Workers, that helped gather the 10,000 signatures needed to get the ballot question before voters.

"An affordable housing trust fund would help everybody. It would help me a lot."

The charter amendment is written to be broad: Voters will be asked to sign off on an account that would pay for rental and owner-occupied housing created through new development, rehabilitation and land trusts.

Ramos said spending from the account would target some of Baltimore's poorest residents, such as renters who earn 30 percent or less of the median area income ($26,000 for a family of four) or homeowners who make 50 percent or less of the area median ($43,350 for a family of four).

Money could go to any of several endeavors, including offering credit counseling and homeownership workshops, and helping developers and nonprofits build houses, renovate homes or rehabilitate vacant ones. It also could support land trusts that can keep mortgages and rents low.

The city housing department would manage the fund in conjunction with a 12-member commission that would include a mayoral appointee, a lender, a social services provider, an advocate for the homeless, private and nonprofit developers, and low-income residents.

The timeline for distributing money would depend on when funding is identified, Ramos said. One proposal is to tax short-term home rentals used for vacations, similar to the tax on hotel rooms, she said.

Legislation now before the City Council would require developers who receive public financing to include in their projects a certain amount of affordable housing. The bill is intended to replace the existing law, which requires the city to compensate developers forced to build affordable housing, and is universally regarded as ineffective.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she supports both the legislation and the charter amendment. She said Baltimore must take steps to address the need, including considering floating city bonds to pay for more affordable housing.

If voters approve the charter amendment, Clarke said, she expects the council will be open to finding ways to fund it.

"This is one of those big items that we need to address to move past the 'Two Baltimores' problem," she said. "We've been stuck for a while."

A new council and mayor will take control after the November election. About half the current council members are retiring, sought other office or lost in the April Democratic primary for mayor.

Clarke, who is up for re-election, said she expects the next council to be more resolved to address the city's lack of affordable housing. Several of the Democratic nominees have actively supported efforts to increase affordable housing in Baltimore.

Todd Cherkis, leadership organizer for the anti-poverty group United Workers, said advocates are meeting with council members and candidates to explain the proposed charter amendment and how the city could pay for more affordable housing.

The group sent dozens of volunteers across the city over six weeks to collect enough signatures to enable the question to appear on the ballot. Cherkis said the volunteers — including some of the Democratic nominees for council — gathered 18,100 signatures in support of the measure, well exceeding the 10,000 needed.

The coalition, known as Housing for All, includes the ACLU of Maryland, the Public Justice Center and the Community Law Center.

"A lot of renters are really struggling, and a lot of people are living in substandard conditions or living on the street," Cherkis said. "We have to make sure this is a priority."

Philip Garboden, an academic with the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at the Johns Hopkins University, said Baltimore has an "enormous affordability gap."

Unlike in cities such as Boston, San Francisco or Washington, he said, Baltimore's biggest affordable housing challenge is its extremely low-income population — not rapidly rising housing costs or a shortage of available units.

"Our rents aren't on the extreme end," Garboden said. "But that doesn't mean our affordability is any better because we have such poverty."

The trust fund idea is not novel. The state of Maryland and Montgomery County are among 750 jurisdictions nationwide that have established such accounts.

Maryland's Affordable Housing Trust, created in 1992, has received about $45 million through interest generated by title company escrows.

The account, which is managed by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, promotes housing for very low-income Marylanders by providing funding for construction, assistance for nonprofit developers, support services and operating costs for some developments.

Montgomery County's Housing Initiative Fund, created in 1988, is funded by a combination of sources, including property tax revenue and loan repayments. The account has a balance of about $44 million. The amount available for loans, grants and subsidies varies year by year.

Mary Brooks, who runs the housing trust fund project for the Washington-based Center for Community Change, said the trusts provide flexibility and local control, in contrast to funding provided by highly regulated federal programs.

"We know how to provide affordable housing," she said. "We are just not committing the resources to make it happen. The private market isn't addressing this at all. If it was, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in. And federal funding, of course, is dwindling."

Antonia K. Fasanelli, director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said Baltimore is behind other cities in making sure people at all income levels have safe, quality and affordable places to live.

"This is critically needed," she said. "This is a way for Baltimore to step into the current urban thinking."

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