THE HOUSING Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) has announced a new, upscale campaign aimed at attracting and keeping working families who would otherwise rent privately owned apartments and could eventually buy homes. HABC seems to have two goals: to make money and to improve the "quality" of its tenants. Unfortunately, the poor, disabled and homeless, who do not have the option to rent market-rate housing, are virtually left out of the equation.
On every page of HABC's newly released Task Force Reports and Recommendations, mention is made of decreasing the concentrations of low-income families, creating mixed-income communities and retaining those whose incomes are on the rise.
In fact, the HABC wants to give working families a preference over the truly poor by reserving 70 percent of available units for families in which a household member is employed. This would leave 30 percent of the units for those whose income consists of public benefits and those with no income at all.
HABC clearly views the decline of public housing as correlated with the decrease in the average tenant's income. The newly announced policies are designed to reverse this trend.
But there is a compelling alternative argument: Public housing has been starved by inadequate funding since the late 1970s. Housing authorities have not had the funds to make public housing safe, decent or attractive. Operating costs of public housing have increased as budgets have decreased. Decay is a natural consequence.
But the cure proposed by HABC is worse than the disease. Those left on the sidelines of HABC's plans are likely to find housing elsewhere financially beyond their grasp. In Baltimore, the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $400 a month, not including utilities. Social Security benefits for disabled adults (SSI) in Maryland are $490 a month. A state program for disabled adults, the only assistance available for such people, provides a princely $100 a month. More than 70,000 Baltimore households have no earned income, and very few are living on stock dividends.
If HABC intends to house 70 percent fewer people with no earned income, where will these people live?
HABC seeks to change its policies toward the homeless in other ways. First, they would favor those who complete transitional housing, who have spent six to 18 months in a group setting. Individuals who can live independently but would not flourish in a group setting are denied the preference shown to those completing transitional programs. This would violate the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits treating disparate groups differently.
Second, a new goal of HABC's admissions policy involves establishing a minimum rent of $25 for all tenants. HUD's regulations do not prohibit housing authorities from charging minimum rents; neither do they require it.
Baltimore's official unemployment rate is 8.9 percent. The city's Office of Employment Development estimates the unemployment rate for black males between ages 18 and 45 to be as high as 40 percent. Minimum rents are an obstacle for those whose employment is marginal, sporadic, seasonal or who cannot find work. Thousands of very poor and often homeless Baltimoreans have no source of income for months at a time; they are ineligible for unemployment and state programs. Requiring a source of income for public housing makes little sense for these folks, and it increases their risk of eviction and homelessness.
Reserving publicly subsidized housing for those unable to enter the housing market is shortsighted public policy. It will create a wave of homelessness by keeping poor and disabled people out of the only housing they are able to afford.
The preamble to the National Housing Act states, "Every American has a right to safe, decent and affordable housing." Its footnote could be, "Unless they are disabled, homeless, unemployed and living in Baltimore."
Lauren Siegel is a social worker employed by Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 4/12/98