Affordable housing for all? Keep dreaming

February 21, 2002|By Michael Olesker

ON THE RADIO the other day, Mayor Martin O'Malley offered a tantalizing glimpse into a rosy future. He mentioned Olympic Games in Baltimore in 2012. Let us dream. He talked about economic fallout, such as high-speed trains between here and Washington. Let us dream some more. He mentioned all those people who work in high-priced D.C. but are moving to Baltimore for our cheaper housing, and would be further encouraged with the futuristic high-speed rail.

And this is where the dream begins to dissolve.

O'Malley is right about a lot of things. The effort to bring the Olympics to the D.C.-Baltimore area reportedly is being taken seriously by big-shot Olympics thinkers. And, undeniably, the economic benefits would be enormous: not only vast tourist dollars, but also wondrous capital improvements -- including that proposed high-speed rail line built in time for the two-city Olympics but remaining forever.

In his first minutes of his first two-way talk show on WBAL Radio the other day, the mayor envisioned people who work in Washington commuting from Baltimore every day. And why not? The high-speed rail time would be brief and, whatever the cost of a round-trip ticket, the savings accrued in housing would still be enormous.

Let us dream some more.

Let us dream of folks who work in Washington -- middle-class folks who have money for the depleted Baltimore tax base, smart folks who have never found a sense of neighborhood ambience in D.C. the way we have it here -- let us dream of these folks bringing a new vitality to a city where many of our neighborhoods are already filled with the sound of construction people rehabbing homes once considered beyond redemption.

But let's not get carried away with ourselves.

What is cheap today is sometimes breathtakingly expensive tomorrow. That is the nature of housing across the state, and in some of the most disturbing ways gets worse in Parris Glendening's final year as governor. Deborah Povich was talking about this the other day, between various General Assembly committee meetings in Annapolis.

Povich is director of public policy for the nonprofit Maryland Center for Community Development. Do not get her started on Parris Glendening and the cost of housing. Remember Glendening's State of the State address last month? Remember how he talked about the troubles of "worldwide poverty?" Remember how everybody walked away from the speech asking, "When did he become secretary-general of the U.N?"

Glendening, in other words, has problems here at home to which he seems oblivious. This includes not only the estimated 50,000 people a year who use homeless shelters, or the 30,000 people turned away for lack of space. It includes -- and pay attention here, if you think we're just talking about deadbeats -- it includes maybe 400,000 working people who live at the poverty level, working to the best of their abilities every day, and cannot find decent and affordable housing for their families.

"The governor has his priorities, and housing's not one," Povich was saying yesterday. "His housing budget's been cut and cut. Land values have increased, and construction costs have increased, and rents have increased, but his budget for housing help has not.

"When William Donald Schaefer was governor, his last budget had $22 million in it for affordable rental housing, for building and rehabbing, for taking old buildings and improving them, for helping working people. But, from a $22 million budget seven years ago, we have this governor asking for only $12 million for housing. And, before we're through the legislative session, it might be $10 million."

Povich went digging through her files. It's important to stay focused on something here: We're talking about working people, who are giving it their best shot but cannot afford decent housing anywhere in the state.

"The top 10 most in-demand jobs in Maryland," Povich said. She rattled off some of them, with their average hourly pay: retail salespeople ($8.70), cashiers ($7.90), waiters ($6.20), food preparers ($7) janitors ($7.50), jobs of this nature -- "of these 10 most in-demand jobs," said Povich, "six do not pay enough money to allow someone working full time to afford a two-bedroom unit anywhere in Maryland.

"And we all talk about people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. We've gone through welfare reform, gotten people off government assistance. But the jobs are still low-wage. We've got to have a government that offers some kind of help developing affordable housing, that helps fund emergency home repairs and helps homeownership for low- and moderate-income families. But these are the programs that have been gutted by the governor."

Glendening has other priorities in his troubled budget. Meanwhile, private developers are turning yesterday's wrecks into newly renovated delights in neighborhoods rediscovering their old charms. But there's a price, and it's climbing all the time.

And it's nice when the mayor makes us dream of Washington newcomers arriving here for Baltimore's affordable housing. It's "affordable" for the moment. And it's "affordable" relative to Washington.

But thousands of working people across Maryland who want a decent life for their families need "affordable" housing -- and nobody, including the governor, seems to care much about them.

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