No room at the inn for Maryland's poor [Editorial]

Our view: Cuts in federal housing subsidies and rising rents threaten to leave thousands of state residents without a roof over their heads

December 28, 2013

During the last recession, more than 90 million people — a third of the nation's population — saw their incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $46,000 a year for a family of four. Many of those individuals and families have never recovered, and as a result states across the country are now facing what U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan calls "the worst rental affordability crisis that this country has known" as rising rents threaten millions of Americans with homelessness. Unless Maryland takes steps to address this growing problem, tens of thousands of state residents could eventually find themselves unable to afford a roof over their heads.

This is a problem cities and counties can't address on their own. It will take their combined efforts as well as significant help from the state and federal governments to increase the supply of safe, affordable housing for Maryland's most vulnerable residents. For that to happen, lawmakers must also work with neighborhood associations and community groups to allay fears of increased crime and reduced property values if low-income housing units are located in their vicinity.

Just "saying no," as the Baltimore County Council did recently when it rejected a proposal to build 50 affordable housing units in the Rosedale community, reflects an unrealistic belief that jurisdictions can somehow erect barriers to keep the poor out, when in fact they are already virtually everywhere. Maryland should be using every tool at its disposal to encourage local jurisdictions to increase the supply of affordable housing precisely in order to avoid creating pockets of concentrated poverty in any one area.

To say that is not to underestimate the difficulty of the task ahead. In recent years, the chronic underfunding of federal housing programs in Baltimore City and elsewhere has actually gotten worse. Funding for the federal HOME program, which subsidizes much of the city's affordable rental housing, has been cut by more than half since 2011. The city housing department once received about $8 million a year for affordable housing construction and maintenance; today it gets less than $3 million. Meanwhile, federal Section 8 vouchers have also been cut, further undermining the city's ability to keep up the units it already owns or subsidize new construction.

And the situation could get even worse if Congress approves a major overhaul of the tax code that leads to the elimination of the low-income housing tax credit, which gives developers tax breaks to make up the difference between what low-income tenants can afford to pay in rent and the cost of renovating existing units or building new ones in today's housing market. A worker earning the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, for example, can pay no more than $360 a month for rent, according the federal housing affordability formula — far less than the $1,200 a month a developer would need to cover the costs of building and maintaining a unit. Without federal and state subsidies, low-wage workers could face being priced out of the market entirely.

Baltimore City is already taking advantage of all the federal and state funds available to it in order to increase its supply of affordable housing. But those resources amount to only a drop in the bucket compared to the need. For example, the city has applied to participate in a new federal Rental Assistance Demonstration program that would allow it to raise more than $330 million in private money for capital improvements in 4,200 public housing units; currently it gets less than $4 million a year for such work. Yet Baltimore will still need some $800 million over the next 15 years just to maintain its existing public housing stock.

Maryland's representatives in Congress must push for more federal support for programs that keep the cost of housing affordable for the state's most vulnerable families and individuals. Granted, that may be a tall order in today's fractious political environment, but it doesn't mean we can afford to ignore the problem. However much it might cost to muster the funds needed to address this crisis, the costs of doing nothing would be even greater.

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