Public housing seeks diversity

May 15, 1998|By Daniel P. Henson III

THE recent Housing Authority of Baltimore City task force reports were received with some skepticism by advocates for the poor.

The skeptics argue that implementing the recommendations would reduce housing assistance to the poor. This conclusion is the result of confusion about the purpose of public housing and HABC's objectives. Public housing cannot be all things to all people.

Until recently, federal public housing policies had favored the poorest of the poor, which meant that people who were not homeless stood scant chance of getting in public housing. As a result, 86 percent of Baltimore's public housing residents receive public assistance. The median income of current public housing residents is $7,000.

Public housing should not be the primary source of housing for the poor.

For example, homeless people usually have problems beyond lack of housing. The city's Office of Homeless Services administers more than 1,000 rental units linked with services to assist homeless people. These units are an appropriate alternative for people who need help with employment, education, substance abuse, learning parenting and physical and mental health problems. We need more transitional housing for such people. That housing should be affordable and convenient to jobs and services.

Government rules

Federal policies also have made it hard for moderate income people to get into public housing. But we need such people in public housing to help them in their transition to non-subsidized housing, and to make public housing developments better communities; they typically provide positive role models for children. We must not allow public housing to be a warehouse for the poorest of the poor.

Public housing rents are based on a sliding scale.

Many moderate-income people can often find private housing for less than they would pay for public housing. This policy clearly discourages them from living in public housing.

In Baltimore, a family of four can have a maximum annual income of $27,000 to qualify for public housing. They are the "working poor."

High rents

These families need housing assistance to maintain a self-sufficient lifestyle. For example, without help, these households would be forced to spend as much as 70 percent of their gross income to rent a two-bedroom apartment at a fair market rent of $618 a month.

HABC is committed to serving this group of hard-working Baltimoreans who are struggling to lift themselves out of poverty. Without such people, public housing will lose essential economic diversity and continue to become socially weak.

HABC recognizes the need to provide housing assistance to everyone who is in need. For instance, HABC has an outstanding record of outreach to the elderly, and a nationally recognized program of job training and economic empowerment. However, HABC is also committed to providing affordable housing that is decent, safe and sanitary, and where people are happy to live.

We are concerned about the negative consequences for the city if low and moderate income people are isolated in a few neighborhoods.

Advocacy groups for the poor should be aimed at ensuring adequate funding for affordable housing (including public housing) in the city and the surrounding counties. Advocacy groups should not ask HABC to exclusively serve the poorest of the poor.

Daniel P. Henson III is executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which runs public housing, and commissioner of Baltimore's Department of Housing and Community Development, which includes the Office of Homeless Services.

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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