Housing woes plague city's low-income residents

Needs of fire victims, others not met in tight budget times

  • Amira Williams, 7, plays on the sofa at her grandfather's house with her mom, Chrissy Thomas, and little brother DaSean Williams, 3.
Amira Williams, 7, plays on the sofa at her grandfather's… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
December 23, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Amira Williams barely survived a deadly fire three years ago that burned her family's home and 95 percent of her body. Now, the young girl faces a new tragedy.

The 7-year-old will be moving out of her North Broadway home between Christmas and New Year's, but her mother, Chrissy Thomas, doesn't know where the family of four will go.

Baltimore housing records show that Thomas' rental has at least 26 code violations, including rodent and mold problems and peeling paint, which could be a lead-poisoning hazard. After failed attempts to get the problems fixed, she says the home isn't safe for the disabled girl and her two young siblings.

Like thousands of Baltimoreans, they can't find a decent affordable home without aid — which the city once pledged but now appears limited. The family's plight illustrates the increasing strain on housing for the city's low-income residents.

"Just about everyone in my house died except for me and my daughter in that fire," Thomas said of the Cecil Avenue blaze that left eight people dead. "And there's nothing they can do to help me."

Housing advocates say the city has a dearth of safe, affordable housing for its many needy residents. Housing officials say they are enforcing violations and providing aid but have limited resources.

The city spent $255 million in federal aid in fiscal 2010 on 13,400 public housing units and thousands of Section 8 vouchers for private rentals. The combined waiting list has about 26,000 names, though the voucher list has been closed for years. Even exceptions made for emergencies such as fires have ground to a halt, said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

The city has used federal dollars to add to the housing stock, providing assistance to more than 24,400 households this fiscal year, up about 3,500 from five years ago. But Graziano said the lagging economy and looming cuts in Washington threaten that progress.

"Frankly, the prospects going forward in the new Congress are very scary," he said. "We've heard the new leadership talk of cuts of 21 percent or even 25 percent in domestic discretionary spending."

Baltimore has more than its share of need. The poverty rate for families in the city is more than 16 percent, more than double the national average, according to the Census Bureau's most recent data.

A worker must earn $23.13 an hour to afford a market-rate two-bedroom unit in the Baltimore-Towson area without spending more than 30 percent of his income, the accepted affordability standard, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.

That's more than the national rate of $18.44 an hour. Yet the average U.S. renter earns about $14.44.

Further, there are two low-income renters for every affordable housing unit in the city, and more than a third of the rental stock in the city doesn't meet basic housing codes, according to a report by Sandra Newman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

For the poor or those who are living near thepoverty level, "rent needs to be very low," she said. "So there is a lot of doubling up, a lot of living in housing that falls well below code."

That's what happened to Thomas' family. At least 13 people in her extended family were in the Cecil Avenue house three years ago, fire officials said. The Fire Department suspected that a cigarette started the fire, one of the worst in Baltimore history. Among the dead were Thomas' mother and brothers.

Thomas tossed one daughter out of a second-story window to safety but fell before rescuing Amira. Her doctors say the little girl defied death many times during her year and a half at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she had more than 30 surgeries. She bears many scars but was able to begin public school this year.

Thomas, who also was burned, thought the blaze and her daughter's disability might qualify her for housing. At the time, the city was adding victims of fires to its emergency housing list.

Since then, Thomas, who is 24 and has been working toward her high school-equivalency certificate, says she's checked with authorities but has never been given a straight answer about her housing status.

Reggie Scriber, a deputy housing commissioner who was on hand at the time of the fatal fire and promised the survivors aid, recently offered some reasons that Thomas didn't qualify for housing aid.

He said Thomas did not check a box on the housing application indicating that she had a disabled daughter. He noted a misdemeanor theft charge on Thomas' record. But mostly, he now says, he didn't believe she lived in the house that burned. He cited court records from the theft case and a paternity suit that list a different address.

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