Housing The Homeless In Baltimore’s Vacants

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(Sleeping in a doorway a block from City Hall last winter. Photo by: Fern Shen)

Housing the homeless of Baltimore in the city’s vacant rowhouses is being floated again by local affordable housing activists whose idea forms the core of an article in the current Atlantic.

Their idea is “to create a community land trust – a non-profit that will hold the title to the land in order to make it permanently affordable.” according totoday’s piece by Alana Semuels.

“Structures on the land can be bought and sold, but the trust owns the land forever,” she writes about the proposal by Housing Is A Human Right Roundtable, a coalition of labor activists and homeless people affiliated with the United Workers.

“A community land trust essentially takes the ‘market’ part out of the housing market, allowing people to buy homes but restricting their resale value in order to make them affordable for the next buyer.”

It’s worked in other cities Semuels says, citing this article in The Architectural League’s “Urban Omnibus” blog.

The Brew floated the same idea last year and got some interesting comments and debate. I’m pasting in a sample below. Maybe these folks have some opinions on the land bank idea.

Barbara A. Samuels, managing attorney for the Fair Housing Project of the ACLU of Maryland:

Everyone always suggests this, but it has already been tried in Baltimore over the period 1970-1994 and was a failure. The City sold vacant houses to the housing authority to rehab as public housing. About 2,900 houses were rehabbed and rented as public housing. The vast majority were in the poorest and still declining neighborhoods where there was no other demand for the properties – by definition that is where long term abandoned houses are located.

By 1998, many were vacant and boarded again and HABC was starting to demolish them. At this point, only about 900 (out of 2900) are still in use and those neighborhoods have emptied out. What a waste! Had the money been used instead to create affordable housing in stable neighborhoods with functioning housing markets, those units would still be providing affordable housing today, and we might not have as much homelessness.

Carol Ott, Housing Policy Watch:

People usually associate “the homeless” with people who are somehow unable to take care of themselves, at even the most basic level. This serves a dual purpose: One, to assert the government’s authority over these people, and two, to separate in our minds “them” from “us” – as in “that could never happen to me, I’m not crazy, a drug addict, an alcoholic, etc.”

The reality, however, is that many homeless people were and are “us.” They have jobs, they have kids – the only difference is they no longer have a place to call home, outside of their car, a shelter, or campsite. Many of us, if we were honest, could easily fall into the same trap – how many people do we know in our social and professional circles, who are just a paycheck or two away from being “them”?

These homeless people are ideal candidates for the first of a multi-tiered plan of using the vacants to house the homeless. They’re working, they have an income, they’re paying taxes, and they need little in the way of social services. They’re also potential candidates for homeownership, if the program were structured in a way that favored low-income residents over the developers and the city.

Other homeless people, those requiring more services and care (and therefore more ongoing support) could be housed in group situations that would allow them a modicum of self-sufficiency, but also the supportive care they need.

While our city gives away millions in potential tax revenue to developers, for the purpose of building “luxury” condos and apartments, we, as voters and residents, need to demand that our elected officials use our tax dollars wisely. Keep in mind, it’s far cheaper (and therefore less of our tax money) to prevent homelessness than to clean up after someone’s fallen into the system of poverty.

  • DHFabian

    This is good, and I hope for the best. But my greatest hope is that someday, we will care about the jobless and the unemployable, for whom no housing is affordable.