More than half the estimated 128,000 rental units in
Baltimore City rent for $400 or less per month, the lowest
in the metropolitan area, yet the city's poorest residents
still have trouble finding housing they can afford to live
in, according to a new study by Johns Hopkins University
Professor Sandra J. Newman, who also directs the Johns
Hopkins Institute for Policy
According to Newman's research — the first
intensive look at the low-end housing market in Baltimore
in three decades — there are two poor residents for
every affordable housing unit in the city and more than
16,000 households on a waiting list for assisted
What's worse, because 80 percent of the city's rental
units are owned by "mom and pop" landlords — those
who own only a few units — the low market rents are
making it difficult for these landlords to maintain their
properties, especially because program rules and these
owners' lack of sophistication exclude them from competing
for scarce rehabilitation funds.
"Baltimore has a serious affordability problem,"
Newman said. "But the problem arises because so many
renters in the city are poor — and getting poorer
— not because a shortage of rental housing has bid up
rents to unattainable levels."
"Available and affordable rental housing is critical
to the health of a community, and it is a particularly
important issue for the poor," said Robert C. Embry,
president of the Abell Foundation, which funded Newman's
study. "The issue needs to be high on the community agenda
and the subject of ongoing debate."
"Too many Baltimoreans just can't afford higher rents.
Yet we must have higher rents if we are to improve the
housing stock's condition," said Ed Rutkowski, executive
director of the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.
and one of five independent reviewers of Newman's study.
The ominous picture is painted by Newman in a
monograph titled Low-end Rental Housing: The Forgotten
Story in Baltimore's Housing Boom, which has just been
published by the Urban Institute. It includes the following
Half of all rental units in
Baltimore rent for less than $400 a month and only 15
percent for more than $600.
Nearly half of renter households
with children are paying more than 30 percent of their
income for rent — rents considered "unaffordable"
given their incomes — yet more than four in 10 of
them are living in physically inadequate housing.
Many of the problems are related
to the age of the housing stock, which averages
50-something years in Baltimore, compared with 40-something
for central cities on average and 30-something for U.S.
More than 80 percent of
Baltimore's low-end rental housing stock is in the hands of
landlords who own fewer than five dwelling units.
Newman's study suggests a variety of promising
approaches to helping solve the crisis she has depicted,
Create an affordable housing trust
fund, comparable to the Maryland Affordable Housing Trust,
to infuse vital capital into salvageable low-end rental
properties. According to Newman's work, virtually none of
the $95 million spent between 1999 and 2003 from federal,
state and local sources to rehabilitate city rental units
went to properties with fewer than five housing units.
Explore creative ways to address
the ownership problem, ranging from engaging professional
managers to transferring property from individual to
institutional ownership through small multifamily
real-estate investment trusts, or S-REITs.
Find better ways to coordinate the
city's efforts to address physically inadequate housing,
perhaps through a demonstration project. Currently, the
city's efforts — code enforcement, lead-based paint
abatement and rental rehabilitation programs —
operate independently, and small owners are excluded.
Revamp and improve Baltimore's
Section 8 voucher program to make it more efficient and
attractive to landlords. If that fails, the city should
consider privatizing the program, Newman said.
For any of these policies to work in the long run,
Newman suggests that the city would be wise to develop more
accurate and recent data on the issue, as well as develop
methods for evaluating housing programs.
"Timely and accurate data would allow program
designers and policy-makers to better understand this
market and to answer critical questions about underlying
problems, not just symptoms," Newman said. "CitiStat [an
accountability tool used by the city] provides an excellent
vehicle on which to build. But much still needs to be done
to finish the job."