The rowhouse fire in East Baltimore that claimed the lives of six people and left seven injured highlighted a hidden problem of Baltimore housing: poor families who are unable to find or afford decent shelter banding together under one roof.
Advocates said yesterday that the problem is the result of an acute shortage of adequate housing for the city's neediest residents.
They pointed out that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's inventory has declined by more than 5,000 units in the past 15 years, and that as many as 3,000 other federally subsidized units have been lost during that time. They also said that the loss of permanent subsidized units is not being made up by increases in housing vouchers that allow low-income families to rent in the private market.
"The question I've always tossed out is, `What happens to all these folks? Where are they?'" said Gregory Countess, assistant director of advocacy for housing and community economic development for the Legal Aid Bureau of Maryland. "The fact that you've got thousands of units of housing lost means that you've lost opportunities for people to live in places that are safe and decent and affordable."
Barbara Samuels, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who specializes in housing issues, said about 29,000 Baltimore families are on the waiting list for public housing - a number that is double the number of units available in the city's portfolio of properties.
"Certainly, it symbolizes the desperate need and demand for affordable housing and the diminishing supply of opportunities," she said of the number of people who were living in the Cecil Avenue rowhouse near Green Mount Cemetery. "You see that in the families that have doubled up, tripled up, in this case maybe even quadrupled up."
The loss of low-income units is not restricted to Baltimore. In recent years, Baltimore County has demolished or plans to demolish about 1,500 units in projects such as Kingsley Park, Samuels said. Because the housing market is regional, the loss of those units can also affect the demand for low-income housing in the city, she says.
"Was some of that housing bad?" she said. "Sure. But nothing is being done to replace it."
Nationally, the National Low Income Housing Coalition wants to create 1.5 million new rental units for needy families, a goal that carries a price tag of about $5 billion, said Nicole Letourneau, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group.
A first step toward reaching that goal was taken Tuesday, when the House of Representatives included $600 million over five years for a national housing trust fund as part of reform legislation for federally chartered private lenders, Letourneau said.
"From the standpoint of the NLIHC, doubling up and tripling up in housing is one of the effects of having a lack of housing that's affordable to people with the lowest incomes," she said.
In Baltimore, the practice - which appears to have been the case in the Cecil Avenue rowhouse - is nothing new.
"It's always been a problem," said Stanley Sugarman, a longtime property owner and manager who recently got out of the business. "I used to go around and see the tenants and you'd see people in the basement or my plumber would tell me there are people sleeping next to the hot water heater. They'd say, `The people are just visiting.'"
The problem is partly a lack of money in a city where the poverty rate for individuals is nearly 23 percent and for families is nearly 19 percent, figures that are nearly double the national average, according the Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey.
"A lot of people don't have the ability to pay for decent housing," Sugarman said. "They have to double up. They rent rooms."
The phenomenon is also reflective of broader problems in the city's low-income rental market.
In a 2005 study funded by the Abell Foundation and published by the Urban Institute entitled "Low-End Rental Housing: The Forgotten Story in Baltimore's Housing Boom," Sandra Newman found that the low-income rental market was in "poor shape."
Newman, the director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, found that as of 2000, half of the rental units in the city were costing less than $400 a month.
"But because so many renters are poor, even these low rents are unaffordable to many," Newman wrote. "There are about two poor renters for every affordable housing unit in the city."
Advocates say the situation may be getting worse, as the gentrification of some city neighborhoods and the redevelopment of others have led to the loss of private low-end rental units.
In addition, the waiting list for the city's housing voucher program has been closed for four years. Exceptions, according to the Housing Authority's Web site, are made for families who fall into several categories, including being victims of natural disasters, being intimidated victims or witnesses to crimes, being displaced by public action or having a member with a disability.