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The Housing Authority of Baltimore City will soon stop taking applications for its residences.
The Housing Authority of Baltimore City will soon stop taking applications for its residences. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The wait to get into Baltimore public housing is so jam-packed that the city is cutting it off. There are 14,000 people on the list with an average wait of five years to get a spot in one of the city’s publicly financed housing units — and that’s after the Housing Authority of Baltimore City whittled down the list by half.

The city’s decision underscores an affordable housing crisis facing not just Baltimore, but the whole country. Nationally, there is a shortage of 7 million homes available to the lowest-income renters, a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found. Rents have risen faster than incomes over the last two decades, and many families are spending way too much of their salaries on a place to live. In Maryland, the problem hits the neediest the hardest. People whose incomes are at or below poverty guidelines, or who make 30% of the area’s median income, are most likely to struggle finding rentals that fit into their budget.

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And what do we think happens when people can’t pay their rent? They live in their cars or on the streets. Not solving this crisis creates a humanity problem for all of us.

We’d like to see as much fanfare around affordable housing as there is when the latest luxury apartment building is unveiled. Developers and city officials are all too eager to welcome in well-to-do residents while forgetting about the city’s poor. We have enough, and perhaps too many, buildings geared to empty nest baby boomers and young professionals. Many of those properties still have plenty of vacancies. Why not build where there is a need?

Baltimore voters made it loud and clear a few years ago that is what they wanted when they approved the creation of an affordable housing trust. City officials last year agreed to levy two excise taxes on certain real estate transactions and other allocations to fund that trust. If the city sticks to its plan, the fund should eventually generate $20 million a year for the creation or rehabilitation of 4,100 housing units in the next decade for low-income people.

But that is just a drop in the bucket. Baltimore officials also need to encourage more private development, and banks need to be more willing to finance such projects. These developments might not be as sexy and glamorous as building in the next trendy area of the city, but the demand is there for those projects. The city needs more projects like Metro Heights at Mondawmin, a 70-unit, four-story apartment building developed by Enterprise Homes Inc. that boasts more affordable rents.

On a broader scale, tackling the entrenched poverty that lands people in public housing complexes for decades with no real way of ever moving out should be a priority for the city. This is a complex program that leads back to the city’s poor education system and job prospects for certain residents. It will not be an easy one to solve, but it is something that needs to be addressed to end the generational need for public housing.

We, like the housing authority, wish the answer to its problem with overcrowded complexes was not to cut people off. but we also understand its necessity; the housing authority rightly doesn’t want to give people false hope that they may one day get a home, when the chances are extremely slim. That is unrealistic.

What is realistic is the city using this moment as a wake up call about the need for affordable housing. If they don’t, they may very well trade a housing crisis for a homeless epidemic.

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