Hotel vs. housing

August 05, 2005

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley might not get his convention center hotel, but his proposal for an affordable-housing fund should stand on its own merits. Devised in response to community and City Council opposition to the $305 million convention center hotel project, the housing plan is a germ of an idea worth refining.

During a contentious City Council hearing on the hotel project, churches and community groups in Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development demanded the creation of such a housing fund to give neighborhoods a fair share of city development dollars. BUILD sees the program as a way to clear large tracts of blighted areas and help revitalize neighborhoods. Unanswered questions are which neighborhoods would benefit, and how.

The mayor has pledged $10 million from surplus city funds to initiate a $59 million, five-year Baltimore Affordable Housing Program. Drawn from a variety of sources, including federal Community Development Block Grant money, the program apparently relies on an infusion of new funds. City Hall intends to replace the CDBG money with city general funds so that other programs don't lose out.

The idea is to use the money to acquire dilapidated houses, demolish them and prepare the sites for private development. The new housing that is built should be mixed-income, owner-occupied and rental, to ensure against concentrating poor residents in one big area. For this to work, however, the subsidies and financing incentives for developers must be sufficient to ensure that affordable housing can be built on a wide-enough scale.

There's little doubt that more decent affordable housing is needed in this city. And certainly Baltimore neighborhoods need to be cleared of scores of vacant houses. If this program can expedite both, it should be approved and not held as a quid pro quo for a convention center hotel.

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