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Housing should not be left to chance

Over a nine-day period at the end of October, as covered admirably by The Sun's Yvonne Wenger, nearly 74,000 low-income households in Baltimore enrolled through a Housing Authority website for the chance to secure one of 25,000 spots on a Section 8 waiting list. Those who make the cut have a roughly one in four chance of actually getting a subsidized housing voucher.

A lottery. For poor people. For housing. Let that sink in.

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Because of federal disinvestment in affordable housing, communities like Baltimore are resorting to such strategies to determine which poor individuals and families will make it on lists for the chance to avoid housing insecurity and homelessness. The United States currently spends approximately 40 percent of what it spent on housing support for low-income people in 1979. This federal disinvestment is the very driver of contemporary homelessness and results in a Baltimore where, according to the Urban Institute, only 43 affordable housing units exist for every 100 extremely low-income households that need them. In the private market, as reported by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Baltimore family would have to earn more than $24 an hour to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. This is a recipe for homelessness.

To highlight federal disinvestment and the resulting absurdity of a lottery that seems pulled from the pages of any number of disturbing novels about our future, I purchased a lottery ticket every day during this nine-day housing wait list enrollment period. Powerball, Mega Millions, scratch-offs — I played them all. If I won, I reasoned, I'd house some people. At the very least, I'd see which lottery was more effective in ending the homelessness of our most vulnerable neighbors. As it turned out, I won exactly one dollar — not even enough to copy a front door key.

We have a national housing policy that places subsidized and market rate housing out of reach for the millions of Americans and thousands of Baltimoreans it is, in theory, designed to serve. What we do about it moving forward is the most pressing question. Funding the National Housing Trust Fund to generate new affordable units in our communities is a good place to start. Locally, a housing development work group of Baltimore's Journey Home is exploring promising ways to bring new units online that target the poorest of the poor without significant public subsidy. Others in Baltimore are exploring land trusts and similar measures to make abandoned properties within city limits habitable and affordable for extremely low-income people. And Baltimore's Housing Authority has set aside hundreds of vouchers to end homelessness for some individuals and families — though they haven't added to an already insufficient voucher supply.

Health reform and growing understanding of the inseparable relationship between housing and health illuminate other bright spots. Communities from Oregon to New York and everywhere in between are documenting improved health status and lower health care costs by housing people experiencing homelessness and giving them the supportive services necessary to remain housed and off the streets for good.

But the lack of affordable and subsidized housing stock along with soaring prices of the private market stand like a brick wall in the way of bringing to scale any number of these promising ideas and pilot projects. At the same time, widening income disparity increasingly prices even middle class families out of the private housing market and drives yet another increase in homelessness. And even though we shouldn't let localities entirely off the hook for implementing plans to meet community need, local resources are simply no match for large-scale federal reinvestment in affordable housing.

Dystopian novelists — from Orwell to Bradbury to Collins — consistently sound intellectual alarm bells about the future of our democracy unless policies and practices change. A lottery for housing for poor people should do exactly the same. Rather than making it the stuff of popular culture, let's work toward the development of a true comprehensive housing policy — one based on actual human need and not blind luck.

Kevin Lindamood is president and CEO of Health Care for the Homeless; his email is klindamood@hchmd.org.

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