Neighborhood improvement

September 26, 2005

AMID ALL THE good news about Baltimore's housing boom and its optimistic implications for the city's future, the bad news about the low-cost rental market is enough to put a damper on any enthusiastic forecasts.

About 40,000 low-income renters live in substandard housing and can barely afford low rents of under $400 that half of all city rentals charge. There are two poor renters for every affordable rental and 22,000 people on waiting lists for public housing, rental assistance or both. Nearly half of renter households with children spend more than the standard 30 percent of income on rent -- leaving them with less money for other living expenses -- yet more than 40 percent of them live in substandard housing.

These negatives in the low-end private rental market have been largely overshadowed by positive developments in the housing sales market, but a new study by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies indicates they nonetheless require the attention of city officials more focused on luring new homebuyers.

According to the study, crime and building abandonment are twice as common in neighborhoods with substandard low-rent units than in neighborhoods with higher-rent units, and a third of the low-rent units don't meet city housing codes. This endangers children and families.

As a result, Baltimore's "bargain" rentals are not attracting new renters -- potential future homeowners. City housing officials can do a better job fighting the problems by linking code enforcement, lead abatement and rental rehabilitation programs. Housing officials should also include rowhouse rentals, which make up the majority of low-rent units, in code enforcement and rehabilitation programs that exclude them.

The study recommends the creation of a housing trust fund supported by real estate taxes to provide qualifying landlords of low-rent units with technical assistance and low-interest loans to make improvements to their properties. Mayor Martin O'Malley should consider reserving a portion of the proposed convention center hotel affordable-housing fund for this purpose. The city should also aggressively lobby for more targeted federal housing aid.

Ignoring problems in the low-end rental market could prove to be a significant roadblock on the city's comeback trail. Stable neighborhoods make for livable cities. City housing officials have taken that as a starting point in their efforts to shore up the housing market; also applying it to the rental market makes good sense.

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