By Elijah Cummings
Along with access to food and healthcare, every American family deserves to live in a safe and affordable home. We are not a nation that abandons our people.
These principles were central to both my presentation last year to officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD] (when we met to discuss Baltimore’s need for more affordable housing) and the broader congressional debate over HUD’s FY2017-2018 federal appropriations.
The Trump Administration’s budget request at that time would have slashed essential federal housing assistance. Initiatives like President Obama’s “Choice Neighborhoods” grant program would have been gutted.
Fortunately, the Congress disagreed. Rejecting the Trump Administration’s attempt to diminish the federal role in providing affordable housing, the Congress increased the federal Choice Neighborhoods commitment to $150 million annually.
That funding victory for our basic American family values was a bright spot in our continuing struggle for our nation’s humanity – and it may well be transformative for the families who now are struggling to thrive in East Baltimore’s Perkins, Somerset, and Oldtown neighborhoods.
It is important to realize, however, that a far larger and broader struggle for affordable housing in America continues to be waged – and remains to be won.
On July 19, HUD announced a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant to Baltimore that should help to transform the distressed Perkins Homes public housing project and its surrounding area into a mixed-income neighborhood of choice, both for current residents and new ones.
Affordable housing advocates, myself included, have mixed feelings about replacing public housing with public-private partnerships partially funded by housing vouchers, especially when past and current public funding for both strategies have been woefully insufficient to the challenge.
Nevertheless, the residents of Perkins Homes (public housing plagued by inadequate funding, maintenance and, at times, questionable management) deserve far better than they have received; and the Choice Neighborhoods strategy appears to be the most achievable path toward that goal.
Beyond the reality that concentrations of poverty are contrary to good public policy, aspects of the Perkins-Somerset-Oldtown Transformation Plan [PSO Plan] offer residents some confidence.
Both the PSO Plan and public declarations by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh commit the City and its partners to a process in which (1) no current residents will be displaced, (2) the stock of affordable housing in the area will not be decreased, and (3) local residents and minority enterprises will participate.
Current federal law reinforces these guarantees.
Choice Neighborhoods initiatives must replace distressed public and federally assisted housing with high-quality mixed income housing on a one-to-one basis. They also must encourage the employment, better health and education of neighborhood residents, even as they provide seed funding for expanded private investment.
In short, the planning for the redevelopment of the Baltimore neighborhoods between Harbor East / Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital justifies a degree of trust that these goals will be realized.
Nevertheless, as redevelopment proceeds, it will be up to City government, its partners, HUD and our office to verify that these Choice Neighborhood promises are being fulfilled.
As I have observed, however, both nationally and here in Maryland, the struggles of working families (low and middle income, younger and older alike) to afford housing that meets their needs continues unabated.
Perversely, rather than supporting policies (like adequately funding our National Affordable Housing Trust Fund) that could help to address our nation’s housing crisis, the Trump Administration and its reactionary allies in the Congress are actively working to make Americans’ daily struggle to afford their housing even more difficult to win.
This disconnect between the Trump Administration’s housing policies and what Americans need is having a direct and negative impact upon far too many Maryland families.
The Maryland Department of Economic and Community Development estimates that more than 180,000 low income Marylanders face excessive housing costs that severely limit their ability to afford other necessities. Nearly nine out of ten of these Maryland households are paying more than one-half of their income for housing.
The rising cost of housing is putting pressure on even middle-income families. In Baltimore City, a 2016 Abell Foundation report concluded that more than one-half of Baltimore’s renters are living in housing that they cannot afford.
The reasons? Housing costs for both working and middle-class renters in Baltimore City have risen rapidly in recent years while wages and income have remained stagnant, creating a widening gap that is not unique to Baltimore City. In many major cities, average rents are approaching their all-time highs.
This “kitchen table” economic disconnect between housing costs and Americans’ ability to pay is driving a national political debate about how best to achieve affordable housing for all Americans.
Democrats and Republicans alike express the conviction that every family deserves a safe and affordable home. On Election Day 2018, the American people will decide how this national aspiration will begin to be realized.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.