People over profit [Commentary]

Homelessness won't end until housing is treated like a basic need, rather than a money-making venture

January 13, 2014|By Jeff Singer and Lauren Seigel

In the face of the federal claim that homelessness has been receding since 2010, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that most cities are experiencing surges of homelessness. It's perhaps unsurprising, given a recent announcement by the chief federal housing official that our nation faces the most severe affordable rental housing crisis in our history.

How can any homelessness plan succeed in these circumstances — even one supported by "a strong coalition of public, private, and nonprofit leaders," as Baltimore leaders claim in their Journey Home plan to end homelessness here? Only by assuring a sufficient supply of affordable housing and jobs paying a livable wage will homelessness and poverty shed their intractable nature.

Will Baltimore's 10-year plan to end homelessness — which is more than half way through its timeline and oft criticized for a lack of leadership, accountability and results — house our 41,637 households who cannot pay their rent each month? Will Baltimore's plan replace the 7,000 public housing units lost because of federal cutbacks? Will the plan create jobs paying a single adult the $16.26 per hour required to afford an efficiency apartment in the city?

The very people and institutions that design these plans are among those responsible for intractable homelessness. Those in the private sector treat housing as a source of profits rather than a human need. Only when those developers, real estate attorneys and bankers concerned about homelessness end the profit seeking that inflates housing costs beyond our neighbors' means will homelessness become rare and brief.

Our public leaders bear their share of responsibility. The federal budget for programs serving low to moderate income families was $96 billion in 1978 (in 2013 dollars) as compared to $40 billion in 2013. This is an astounding 58 percent decrease leaving hundreds of thousands tenuously housed — or outright homeless.

Baltimore's public leaders shuffle the dispossessed out of sight from the well off. The city destroys encampments for the desperate and legislates against those directly seeking assistance. Concomitantly, wealthy developers receive our tax incentives (Harborplace, Harbor East, Harbor Point), while poor neighborhoods are starved of investment.

Perhaps it seems strange that the Democrats governing Baltimore subscribe to the discredited model of trickle-down economics. Yet, as Huey Long acutely observed, "They've got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen."

In September, the city dedicated $21.75 million from a national mortgage settlement to demolish 1,500 houses, rather than creating affordable housing, as Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Ohio and Washington are doing. Demolition may serve the needs of developers, but rehabilitation is a better prescription for people experiencing homelessness (who might usefully rebuild these houses).

Finally, the nonprofit sector: Our two largest such entities, the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, gentrify large swaths of adjacent property (often using tax dollars), forcing hundreds of their neighbors to relocate. At the same time, the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, as chairman of Baltimore's Downtown Partnership, is collaborating in the current drive to criminalize begging — hardly a goal consistent with a humanitarian orientation. Increased rates of incarceration help no one, especially poor people slipping through a shredded safety net. As Cicero observed, "What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage."

No homelessness plan will end homelessness. We can achieve this goal only by building an economy that meets the needs of all, rather than one that prioritizes profits for a few. So long as the Roland Park's median household income is seven times the median household income in Upton, so long as a person with a suit can successfully beg for millions of dollars at City Hall while a person more shabbily dressed risks arrest for seeking one dollar, so long as housing creates profits for the few rather than homes for the many, homelessness will remain intractable.

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