Rent money

October 06, 2005

A PLAN by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to save money by denying rent assistance to low-income residents who move out of the city is understandable, given budget cuts to federal housing programs and the growing need for affordable housing by in-city residents. However, this plan has the potential to restrict families from moving to safer neighborhoods and closer to areas with jobs and better schools, in effect limiting families' mobility and hindering their opportunities.

The housing authority has joined a federal program that gives the city wide latitude on how it spends about $200 million that was once dedicated to housing assistance. The program allows the city to use the funds to demolish vacant and dilapidated public housing units and build new ones, improve substandard apartments, and address other housing needs. Still, housing authority spending on rent assistance has declined overall because of past budget cuts. As a result, housing officials say they can no longer pay higher rents outside the city and still help city residents, including 22,000 people on waiting lists for public housing or rent assistance.

Individuals or families receiving rent assistance outside the city, or in other states, will now be required to move back to the city or lose the assistance. Though relatively few of the 10,000 households now getting assistance would be affected -- 225 in Maryland, mostly in Howard and Baltimore counties, and 40 in other states -- the plan is worrisome nonetheless. The geographic limitations are punitive barriers to housing at a time when housing officials should be making it easier, not harder, for people to find affordable housing.

Funding cuts to the rent assistance program by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are forcing housing authorities nationwide to come up with creative ways to save money. We sympathize with the city on this point but believe housing officials should do more to make the rental market more appealing to low-income renters so they will want to stay in the city.

The housing authority should join with housing agencies statewide and, if possible, in neighboring states to push HUD to fund the program by region. This would better serve renters and free up Baltimore to whittle down its housing waiting lists and dilute neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.

This issue also offers an important opportunity for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to use the forthcoming state housing conference to make clear that Maryland does not support using public policy to restrict housing choices.

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