Housing needs

August 10, 2007

A recent report from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that increasing numbers of the nation's poor are spending more of their income on rent while also waiting longer for federal subsidies. The report reflects the worsening crisis in the supply of affordable housing, a shortage that is certainly being felt in Baltimore.

Steps are being taken here to deal with the problem, but far more needs to be done.

Nearly 6 million households nationwide met HUD's definition of worst-case housing needs in 2005 (the latest available data), meaning that those families and individuals made less than half of an area's median income, received no rental assistance and paid 50 percent or more of their monthly income for rent or lived in substandard housing. The number had increased by 817,000 households since HUD's last tally, in 2003, a 16 percent jump.

A bill passed recently by the House of Representatives' financial services committee could help. It would establish a National Affordable Housing Trust Fund aiming to give states and localities up to $1 billion a year to produce, rehabilitate and preserve 1.5 million housing units for low-income families in the next decade. It's a worthy idea, but it's also been on the drawing boards for several years. Congress should push for affordable-housing relief with more urgency.

In the meantime, cities like Baltimore cannot wait and need to act on their own. From 2000 to 2005, housing prices in the city doubled while wages increased only 19 percent (a disturbing trend reflected nationwide in the HUD report). A 2005 analysis of the rental market found a shortfall of nearly 26,000 affordable units for households making less than half of the area median income, and nearly 45,000 units for households making less than 80 percent of area median income.

The City Council has passed an inclusionary zoning law that requires developers receiving large city subsidies to set aside 20 percent of units for affordable housing. It has also created an affordable-housing fund, putting in nearly $60 million over multiple years to increase the supply of affordable units. Still needed is a more comprehensive and coherent plan that should include even more investment of city dollars and a greater commitment to develop and restore more affordable units as well as provide more housing vouchers for low-income families.

Baltimore has taken some important steps, and for the next fiscal year the city is slated to get some additional federal funding. But a long-term shortfall in federal housing dollars also needs to be reversed, so that Baltimore and other cities don't have to run so much harder and faster to get ahead of the affordable-housing crisis.

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