The housing crunch

July 17, 2006

The late Adele Plitt wouldn't have liked what's become of her old neighborhood. Standing on her South Baltimore steps, she would have clucked at the soaring prices for formstone rowhouses like hers, shaken her head at the luxury SUVs clogging the streets and bemoaned the loss of working folk. A night watchman who used to rent Mrs. Plitt's house on Riverside Avenue eventually moved out of the neighborhood - he couldn't afford it.

The pressures of gentrification and the hot housing market are affecting an increasingly diverse number of Baltimore neighborhoods. Housing values are climbing and with them, city tax revenues - but that also translates into less affordable housing. And that disparity undermines Baltimore's vibrant social and cultural diversity.

A report issued last week offers an in-depth look at the affordable-housing crisis here - and it is a crisis. The findings confirm what many know already: Lower-middle-class people can't remain in their homes because of higher property taxes and they can't afford to buy the new housing being built in the city. As that gulf deepens, Baltimore will increasingly be divided between the well-to-do and those struggling to survive.

The report by the Baltimore City Task Force on Inclusionary Zoning and Housing should serve as a priority-planning document for City Hall. It recommends that new developments that receive public funding set aside 20 percent of their units as affordable housing. Projects that have no public assistance would be mandated to include up to 20 percent of their housing units for low- to middle-income people in exchange for the city offsetting some of their costs. Both recommendations would ensure an across-the-board choice of housing for city dwellers.

Some city officials have raised understandable concerns about a 20 percent mandate. But city officials have to decide what their level of commitment to affordable housing is, and begin developing possible incentives that address the needs of both developer and prospective homebuyer.

Financing new affordable housing may be the tougher call. The task force has proposed a housing trust fund that would be financed by a portion of the city's recordation tax, but that leaves the trust fund vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the housing market - and it can't finance this revitalization alone.

The city simply can't continue to amass vast tracts of deplorable housing and a glittering array of million-dollar residences. The task force report should be used to devise a comprehensive framework for providing inclusive, attractive housing that would keep the Adele Plitts of South Baltimore in Baltimore.

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