Struggling for a home

Renters, owners labor to keep up after moving in

In Baltimore City

October 17, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

A DECADE AGO, Louise Stewart moved into a rehabbed rowhouse co-op on a stunning tree-shaded block in Baltimore's Reservoir Hill, expecting the home, which she rents but has an option to buy, would become an investment for her children.

Today, Stewart, a secretary, is in a financial crunch - borrowing cash from friends to help pay the rent and struggling to stretch her $725 biweekly paycheck to pay gas and telephone bills on time.

Like tens of thousands of others, Stewart is being squeezed by rising rents caused by a Baltimore housing boom. Home prices are climbing in the city's safer neighborhoods, and for growing numbers of families whose incomes aren't rising the choice has become either a home that's too expensive or one that is barely habitable.

Housing is considered affordable if it costs less than 30 percent of a family's gross income.

Last year, nearly a quarter of all renters in Baltimore paid 50 percent or more of their income on rent, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Census.

And there has been a substantial jump in the number of Baltimore households budgeting 30 percent or more of their income on housing: up from 46 percent in 2002 to 58 percent last year for homeowners, and from 39 percent to 47 percent for renters

"The working-class folks are slipping into a more and more precarious situation," said Mitch Klein, lead organizer for the Baltimore chapter of ACORN, a group that advocates more affordable housing and higher wages for low-income people.

The struggle to find affordable housing reflects a larger problem - a widening gap between the richest Marylanders and those at the bottom of the pay scale. Recent census statistics showed that one out of five Baltimore residents lives in poverty.

While Baltimore's renters are suffering the most, even those who can afford to buy a home, lured by low interest rates, financial incentives and the "American dream" of home ownership, find themselves struggling to cover the costs once they move in.

Frustrated city housing officials say property flipping - where homes are bought and sold in a short period of time for values far exceeding their worth - and predatory lending practices have contributed to the financial problems of some low-income homeowners.

"There are overly aggressive lenders and financiers, and there are predatory lenders out there who are lending people more money than they can afford to pay back," said Ken Strong of the city's Office of Homeownership in the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Baltimore officials believe that most of the city's nearly 6,000 foreclosure petitions in 2001 were caused by predatory practices.

Strong's department has emphasized homeowner education to help first-time buyers avoid scams and too-good-to-be-true financing offers.

"You're looking into the biggest purchase most people make in their lifetime," he said. "The risk is a foreclosure, the loss of a house and the ruin of a family's credit for a long time."

Many Baltimore renters face similar dangers.

Renters in Baltimore are more likely to be evicted than those in Washington, Cleveland or Detroit, a report last year from the Abell Foundation found. In 2000, landlords evicted 7,442 of the city's 128,127 renting households.

"I see families who make upper-class money jugglers embarrassed, because they really try with so little," said John Nethercut, executive director for the Public Justice Center, which represents low-income people in eviction cases. "But anything that goes wrong can quickly kick them over the line. If the baby's sick and the baby sitter doesn't show up, you don't go to work. And that costs you."

Nethercut said he sees the results of people unable to afford their rent when he represents them in the city's case-clogged rent court.

"Many people are living in housing they can't afford," he said. "They are in danger of being evicted because they can't pay the rent."

Evictions and economic struggle are forcing many Baltimore families into housing that is dilapidated or unsafe, he said.

"It's not that there isn't housing that is available at a lower rent," Nethercut said. "It's that this housing is often in such poor condition, it doesn't even meet housing codes."

Robert and Zeta Graham have been fighting their landlord in court about rent payment and the condition of their Northeast Baltimore apartment. Court appearances and meetings with an attorney forced Robert Graham to miss work. He lost two warehousing jobs this summer, he said, and now works with a temporary agency doing whatever he can.

"It's hard to get work, if as soon as I start I say I'm not going to be there because I have to go to court," he said. "And you can't move from one place to the next and think you can get a job. They want a stable work history."

It wasn't always like this for the Grahams. They bought a home in Northeast Baltimore 15 years ago. Zeta operated a child care business in the house, and Robert earned about $15 an hour at a warehouse.

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