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Op-ed

Inclusionary housing in Baltimore: New bill should aim lower on the income scale | GUEST COMMENTARY

The Baltimore City Council conducted its first in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic on April 4, 2022.

Among the most striking sights in Baltimore are the cranes rising above new luxury housing within view of thousands of abandoned houses and individuals sleeping on the streets. Unmet housing needs in Baltimore City are enormous. Rent burdens, evictions, substandard units, geographic and racial concentrations of problems, and homelessness are among the housing problems that seem overwhelming.

Baltimore’s Consolidated Plan, required by the federal government to guide certain community development efforts, quantifies Charm City’s housing need: For low-income Baltimoreans, we need 53,620 affordable housing units, 67% of which would serve the 35,820 households with incomes below $31,400 per year.

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The latest city affordable housing effort is reinstating our lapsed inclusionary housing law. Inclusionary housing is a tool that municipalities use to create “affordable” housing by requiring developers to set aside a percentage of their units for lower income households. At its best, inclusionary housing can promote racial equity and mixed income communities, while avoiding gentrification. Developers may benefit from modifications such as tax credits, density bonuses and zoning alterations in return for creating housing affordable to households with incomes between up to 120% of the area median — depending upon the goals of the government agencies that oversee the ordinance.

Baltimore City Council members are considering new legislation to reinstate and improve the previous inclusionary housing legislation in effect between 2007 and 2022. During that period, between 34 and 37 “affordable” housing units were created, according to a November Enterprise Foundation study, and not a single such unit benefited our neighbors most in need, i.e., those with the lowest incomes. These households are far less likely to secure stable and affordable housing, thus facing evictions and homelessness in the context of unaffordable housing and the shrinking supply of public housing.

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Baltimore’s expired ordinance applied to projects constructing or renovating 30 or more housing units and seeking a public subsidy or rezoning. If a project benefited from a public subsidy, such as Tax Increment Financing or Payment in Lieu of Taxation, the developer was required to make 20% of the units affordable to tenants with incomes no higher than 120% of the Area Median Income. Projects that involved rezoning or the sale of city owned land were required to make 10% of the units affordable. The AMI for the Baltimore area is $100,575 per year for a family of three; alas, the inclusionary housing units created in Baltimore assisted households with incomes no lower than $62,694 per year, completely defeating the intent of the program.

The new bill, CC 22-0195, is an improvement in some ways, eliminating the waivers that previous city aministrations found so tantalizing. (These waivers could not have been related to developers’ campaign contributions, of course.) Yet the bill ignores the lowest-income Baltimoreans, who are most desperate for housing. Developers would be required to create housing units only for households with incomes at or below 60% of the Area Median, ignoring the lowest-income families most likely to be evicted.

As long as housing is primarily a commodity, only those with relatively high incomes will be adequately housed. The market does not produce a sufficient supply of housing for our neighbors with low incomes. Housing subsidies are woefully inadequate: Of the 18 million severely cost-burdened households in the U.S., fewer than 5 million have access to a rent subsidy. Until national housing policy is rationalized to meet the need, we must use other tools to produce housing that people can afford.

While we await federal action to create additional public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers and Project Based Rental units, as well as to increase wages for the lowest paid workers, Baltimore can produce housing for our neediest neighbors by means of a properly targeted inclusionary housing bill. By explicitly targeting the majority of needy families — those with incomes at or below 30% of the Area Median Income, rather than the less desperate families with incomes at or below 60% of the Area Median Income — we will come much closer to fulfilling the promise of inclusionary housing.

This will necessitate a commitment to affordable housing that, so far, has been lacking in our leadership. We need every tool in the box to ensure that housing is affordable for everyone.

Jeff Singer (jeff.singer@ssw.umaryland.edu) and Lauren Siegel (lauren.siegel@ssw.umaryland.edu) are adjunct instructors at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, teaching social policy and community organizing. Both have served as homeless outreach workers since the 1980s.


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