Housing and Neighborhood (Dis)Advantage


Rethink RAD
Public housing residents protest the sale of their high-rise buildings, at Housing Authority of Baltimore City, 2014, photo courtesy of Right to Housing Alliance


Over the past several decades the United States has significantly reduced its commitment to and quality of public housing stock, while encouraging, via governmental policy and widespread corporate marketing, homeownership. And while policy makers and politicians have long lauded homeownership as the key to not only community stability but to intergenerational wealth, the mortgage crisis of 2008 revealed that homeownership was not the panacea policy makers proposed. Nearly six million homeowners lost their homes due to foreclosure.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans live in homes that are either underwater or still in the early stages of foreclosure. Finally large swaths of Americans live in neither houses they own nor in public housing. Although they have some rights as renters, these rights do not begin to compare to the rights and privileges given to homeowners–to use but one example: while there is a home mortgage deduction that often confers substantial tax benefits to homeowners there is no such deduction for those who rent rather than own their homes. The rights of renters are often ignored and are in many instances trampled on.

Among all the issue areas we address in this document, housing, with its strong and inherent relationship with privatization, is the matter over which local officials have the least control. Yet and still the housing crisis has a deep urban and metropolitan component. The mortgage crisis hit Baltimore area residents hard, with Wells Fargo paying out millions in 2012 as a result of giving black and Latino homeowners predatory loans. Only Detroit renters face a higher threat of eviction, and a recent study shows that Baltimore’s rent court (created to give renters increased legal rights) is heavily tilted towards landlord priorities. Notably, the city has the largest homeless population in the state.

Baltimore has approximately 120,000 renting households, but the city’s District Court of Maryland for Baltimore city, colloquially known as “Rent Court” routinely sees more than 150,000 cases per year for failure to pay rent. 94% of those renters being sued by their landlords are black, 78% are women, and 72% of them would have legal grounds for a dismissal based on the conditions of the properties they rent, were it not for a biased court system that values debt collection over public safety. Approximately 7,000 Baltimore families are judicially evicted each year. (Right to Housing Alliance and Public Justice Center “Justice Diverted: How Renters are Processed in Baltimore’s Rent Court”)

Baltimore’s public housing stock has significantly decreased (42 percent between 1992 and 2007 alone). What public housing stock remains has been poorly maintained.  A several-thousand-repair backlog exists, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City eliminated its inspector general position responsible for holding the Authority accountable, and seven residents have sued the city alleging they’ve been forced to exchange sex for repairs   (Jacobson 2007; Wenger 2015)

Over the past several years, the Housing Authority has begun selling over 40% of the remaining public housing stock to private developers through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) pilot program. The new owners will receive massive public subsidies through the use of Tax Increment Finance deals, which reduce potential tax revenue for the city, while also reducing the community’s ability to control our own most valuable public resources.

In addition, Baltimore is in the top eight hypersegregated metro areas in the country as of 2010 and has a long history of forcibly displacing its Black population (Brown 2015; Massey and Tannen 2015).  Hypersegregation creates neighborhoods of accumulated structural advantage and disadvantage characterized by racial composition, allowing one to predict everything from life expectancy to the levels of bank redlining/subpriming to the quality of critical city services simply by know the racial demographics of people living in a neighborhood.  Serial forced displacement results in root shock–inducing stress and trauma–and results in the loss of community, cultural institutions, social capital, businesses, and identity (Fullilove 2004).  Both hypersegregation and serial forced displacement result in tremendous wealth extraction for Black Baltimore whether due to lower home equity and higher mortgage payments due to redlining/subpriming (effects of hypersegregation) or due to the loss of social capital and the loss of land and resources (effects of serial forced displacement).

The twin policies of containment and clearance of Black people in Baltimore has resulted in what is somewhat whimsically known as the “White L” which runs from north central Baltimore communities such as Mt. Washington, Roland Park, Homeland & Guilford then proceeding south to communities such as Charles Village, Mt. Belvedere, Mt. Vernon, Downtown & Fed Hill and then runs east to communities such as Inner Harbor, Canton & Harbor East.  Neighborhoods in the White L contain disproportionate amounts of accumulated structured advantage, including the city-subsidized/free Charm City Circulator, a disproportionate concentration of traditional bank institutions, and community benefits districts which provide extra services such as trash pickup, snow removal, and security patrols.  Without specific remedies, Baltimore’s hypersegregation and serial forced displacement will tear at the fabric of racial equity by structurally advantaging the White L and the expense of disinvested, redlined Black neighborhoods.

To that end we propose a range of policies designed to deal with public housing stock, homeowners, and renters alike, as well as the harmful legacies of hypersegregation and displacement.  The city has existing anti-discrimination policies that would provide the ability to combat racist housing policies however it has not enforced them.  As local political officials often have the ability to express their concerns to political officials higher up the food chain,so to speak, they can lend their voice to support state and national level these policies.

  1. Vigorously enforce existing laws: a) the city’s mandatory inclusionary zoning, in order to provide affordable housing; b) the desegregation mandate in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, to further fair housing; c) the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, to support investments in Black neighborhoods; d) the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, targeting fair lending practices.
  2. Judicial enforcement via consent decrees should be utilized to ensure that desegregation takes place within Baltimore City, not just outside of the city as mainly happens with the Thompson vs. HUD consent decree.  An example of this would be the actions of Judge Leonard Sand in Yonkers, New York where his court mandated the City of Yonkers build public and affordable housing throughout the city due to its long history of residential segregation in public housing.  For Baltimore, this would look like building high-quality, low-income public housing in communities such as Roland Park, Guilford, and Homewood which pioneered racially restrictive covenants and whose exclusionary zoning restrictions have been used to prevent the site placement of higher density public housing.
  3. Prevent further deterioration of public housing units; offer public housing that is well-maintained but not privatized via the Rental Assistance Demonstration, and create an accessible pathway for resident/community control of public housing.  This is where the deployment of community land trusts (below) would be most advantageous.
  4. Fight to allow public housing residents who want to stay in their community to stay and not be displaced via Choice Neighborhoods.
  5. For public housing residents who want to leave their public housing development, they should be given a housing mobility voucher modeled after the Thompson vs. HUD case.
  6. Establish democratically-elected and community-controlled community benefits districts to allow residents of disinvested Black neighborhoods to control how investments will be spent in their community.
  7. Establish community land trusts, in concert with the affirmatively furthering fair housing mandate.  It is not enough, as the Baltimore Housing Roundtable suggests in their report, to focus on housing affordability without attending directly to Baltimore’s history of racial inequity.
  8. Preserve federally assisted homes and housing-resources.
  9. Increase the supply of low income housing overall.
  10. Create a housing trust fund for the city of Baltimore.
  11. Adopt a one-for-one policy that replaces every demolished low-income housing unit with another similar unit.  This one-for-one policy should allow displaced residents to move back into their community when the redevelopment is completed at the same cost when they left.  Thus, subsidies should be connected to this policy to ensure affordability is maintained.
  12. Eliminating the threat of lead poisoning may require temporarily displacing families so that Baltimore’s children are no longer exposed to this powerful neurotoxin.  Lead-ridden housing either needs to be fully abated or demolished.  In this instance, when redevelopment occurs, all displaced families should be allowed to return to lead free housing units vis-a-vis the one-for-one policy listed above.
  13. Require local landlords to accept federal housing vouchers.
  14. Increase renter access to legal aid, assistance, and representation at rent court.
  15. Demand that landlords and agents in Baltimore’s rent court document their claims of rent owed, as well as their compliance with licensing and lead-risk legal requirements.
  16. Fund eviction prevention programs.
  17. Expand landlord licensing requirements that ensure annual health and safety inspections to all rental housing in Baltimore.
  18. Strengthen and expand prevention assistance and care management services to individuals and families and youth at risk of experiencing homelessness.
  19. Adopt policies that penalize landlords for letting housing fall into such a state of disrepair that it is irreversible, costs more than rebuilding to address, leaving the city, should it move to do so, with the costs of dealing with a derelict property.
  20. Work with engineers and developers to find affordable, and consequently, scalable, ways to renovate existing homes in quality ways that will last. (For example, explore the use of contemporary concrete materials and ways of using them to arrest the degradation of row house and townhouse brickwork and turn these aesthetic and culturally significant structures into livable homes available for purchase at costs within reach of the poor.)