Create affordable housing trust funds in Baltimore

October 23, 2001|By Steven Soifer

TENS OF thousands of vacant houses. An equal number of abandoned lots. Fire-scorched buildings that look as if they will collapse. A population fleeing the city.

Afghanistan? No. Baltimore City.

To say there is a housing crisis in Baltimore is an understatement. Incredibly, there is more vacant land (10 percent) than park space (9 percent) in Baltimore. Over the years, the city has tried numerous quick fixes, such as boarding up or tearing down vacant buildings, trying to find absentee landlords and holding tax sales, to little avail.

While a massive strategy -- the equivalent of a "war on abandoned buildings, vacant lots and predatory lenders" -- would improve the situation in the long term, there is a short-term effort that could be effective in helping the city cope with this huge problem: Create affordable housing trust funds, or AHTFs, to build and rehabilitate housing for low- and moderate-income people. More than 130 U.S. cities and 36 states, including Maryland, have done so.

AHTFs have an impressive track record. Started more than 20 years ago, the funds have built more than 200,000 affordable houses, raised $9 for every $1 invested and have a 99.8 percent success rate.

Usually, real estate transfer taxes, document recording fees, development mitigation funds and developer fees are earmarked for AHTFs in order to perpetually fund them. Millions of dollars yearly are raised this way.

In this way, a city's housing and land needs not otherwise funded by federal, state or local government can be met. The money is used for affordable housing and vacant lot development, community gardens, homesteading programs, land trust homes, more rental aid certificates, lead paint abatement, additional code enforcement, home loan counseling and anti-predatory lending outreach work.

A specially created board would fund and administer the various city projects financed by the AHTF.

Thousands of people in Baltimore, and millions nationwide, need decent, affordable housing. Moreover, many vacant lots in the city, now rife with weeds, garbage and drug dealing, must be cleaned up and cared for.

Baltimore groups such as the Charm City Land Trusts and Parks and People Foundation work to plan and strategize housing and land revitalization efforts.

But without investment in these kinds of projects, the city will continue to lose another war -- the one to prevent flight from Baltimore.

There is no long-term strategy in the city for dealing with its housing problems, which date to the riots of the late 1960s. The administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley unfortunately does nothing differently from past ones to tackle this serious problem.

The administration does not seem to have the leadership and political muscle or will to do so. Baltimore's City Council needs to act immediately to establish an AHTF. Or residents should consider a change in the city charter to force the city to act.

Steven Soifer is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

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