Need for affordable rentals grows critical nationwide

Urban Chronicle

March 09, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL

On Monday, the top of this page was devoted to a photo essay by Sun photographer Jed Kirschbaum about the continuing demolition of the low-income Chapel NDP Apartments near the Johns Hopkins medical complex in East Baltimore, which are slated to be replaced by a multimillion-dollar, mixed-use development.

The fate of the 173-unit apartment complex, and the families who lived there, was a subject I first wrote about in this column in 2003 as an example of the tension between a city's competing needs to accommodate new investment and house its most vulnerable residents. A year later, I wrote more stories about the settlement of a lawsuit tenants filed to prevent their eviction and the difficulty many had finding new places to live.

Yesterday, Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies released a report that puts what's happening at Chapel in a national context.

According to the study, America's Rental Housing: Homes for a Diverse Nation, about 200,000 low-rent units are being lost each year nationwide through demolition or conversion to market-rate rentals or condominiums. That's about twice the number of new affordable units that are being created through a federal tax-credit program and minimal expansion of housing vouchers, the study says.

"We are taking one step forward and two steps back as gentrification in some neighborhoods and continued deterioration in others leads to the removal of vitally needed lower-cost rental housing," Nicolas P. Retsinas, director of the Joint Center, said in a statement that accompanied the release of the report.

The dilemma Retsinas described is not limited to cities. Of more than 2 million units removed from the rental rolls, about a third were in the suburbs. In the Baltimore area, one prominent example that has been in the news is the 508-unit moderately priced Rodgers Forge Apartments near Towson, which are being converted into condos priced at $200,000 and up.

And while most of the lost rental units were built before 1960, the study shows that, like the apartments at Chapel and Rodgers Forge, 90 percent had tenants in them. And three-quarters of the lost units were in decent shape.

The report makes the case that rentals are given short shrift by policymakers preoccupied with boosting homeownership, pointing out that a third of all households are renters, including large numbers of the young, the elderly and newly arrived immigrants.

A fifth of renters make more than $60,000 a year, the report says, adding, "But despite a sizable high-end market, rental housing remains home to a disproportionate share of the nation's most disadvantaged households."

Echoing many of the concerns raised last year by the Johns Hopkins University's Sandra J. Newman in her study of Baltimore's low-end private rental market, the report says many owners of small rentals are too financially pressed to make needed repairs on their properties.

Some of the report's most dramatic revelations concern affordability. It notes that only a third of the nation's poor households receive rent subsidy assistance. And it says more than two out of five tenants pay more than the affordability threshold of 30 percent of their incomes for housing, an all-time record.

Under that standard, a senior receiving the basic Social Security benefit of $579 a month would be able to afford rent of $174 a month, according to the report. And rents for new, market-rate apartments are "well out of reach for the 40 percent of renters with incomes of less than $20,000," according to the report.

"Unable to afford the higher rents for newer suburban units, many lowest-income renters remain stuck in older, lower-quality apartments close to the urban core with limited access to well-paying jobs and other advancement opportunities," the report says. "Without more production of affordable rental in the suburbs and expanded community development efforts in center cities, the economic prospects of the nation's most disadvantaged are certain to worsen."

It says the 20-year-old Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, a federal program administered by the states, has been important in creating new units but has not "offset the ongoing losses of other subsidized units."

One of the reasons was hinted at in a statement issued in December by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. In announcing the award of $6.8 million in annual credits to nine affordable housing projects - three of them in the city - the state housing agency said: "As in past competitions, the number of high-quality applications far exceeded the availability of resources."

Warned the Joint Center report: "Without increased resolve to bolster the earning capacity of lowest-income renters and to expand the supply of lower-cost rental housing, the affordability crunch will only worsen in the years ahead."

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