The door-to-door campaign paid off.
Or rather, the campaigns.
Late last Friday, a coalition of affordable housing advocates in Baltimore announced that they had reached an agreement with Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office and members of city council to allocate $20 million a year to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The trust fund was created in 2016, after a campaign by many in the same coalition to get a question on the ballot establishing the fund. The measure was approved by 83 percent of voters.
A year and a half later, as Next City reported, the fund was still empty. As of March, the advocates — including members of United Workers and the Baltimore Housing Roundtable — had secured a verbal commitment from the city’s housing commissioner to put $2 million into the fund. But they were still going door to door, drumming up public support for an allocation ten times that amount. As the weeks went by with no further commitments from officials, the Baltimore Sun reported, the coalition began working on yet another campaign, this time pushing for a ballot question that would require the city to set aside 0.05 percent of its total property assessment for affordable housing.
Turning up the pressure helped bring the agreement to fruition, says Destiny Watford, a community organizer with United Workers and member of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable. As part of the agreement, the coalition agreed not to push for the property assessment measure on the November ballot.
“We didn’t know what would happen,” Watford says of the most recent ballot campaign. “We were just like, listen, if the city isn’t taking action, if their response to democracy and public outcry, if their response to thousands of voices that say that they want money in an affordable housing trust fund is silence, is to ignore us, to say that they’re with us publicly and then internally never do anything or put skin in the game, then we’re going to take action into our own hands. And we did.”
According to a press release from the campaign, the council is expected to support legislation creating small excise taxes on property transfers and deed recording that could generate around $13 million a year for the affordable housing trust fund. The mayor’s office agreed to allocate the rest, starting with $2 million in fiscal year 2020 and ramping up to $7 million a year by 2023. The agreement will be formalized with a memorandum of understanding and a press conference in the next month, according to the press release. Next City reached out to the mayor’s office for confirmation of the details, which were also reported by the Sun, but has not gotten a response.
Watford says the coalition is excited about the agreement because it’s hoping to build a model for future action in cooperation with city officials. But generations of Baltimoreans still don’t trust the city, she says, and the advocates still have their guard up.
“We’re just grabbing the chair to have a seat at the table …” she says. “We’re going to have to hold the city and ourselves accountable to make sure that this actually happens.”
Beyond cementing the agreement into law, coalition members are still pushing for a more direct allocation of money to a network of community land trusts in the area. Last March, the housing commissioner promised $100,000 to support the land trusts. It was a good start, says Lisa Hodges, project manager for the Westport Community Economic Development Corporation’s community land trust effort. But advocates were asking for $6 million.
Westport, which is also a member organization in the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, is one of three nonprofit development corporations trying to establish a regional land trust, Hodges says. It’s eyeing around 90 vacant properties in the neighborhood — where values are still “low-ish,” according to Hodges — and working on a model of shared equity in which the land trust would own the land and income-qualified residents would own the improvements. It’s targeting residents making between 30 percent and 80 percent of area median income, and Hodges says there are certain longtime residents of public housing who would make good candidates for homeownership under the community land trust model.
The equity share between the land trust and the homeowner after a home is sold is still being worked out, Hodges says. And the coalition is working with the city to acquire the first round of properties, which are vacant and tax-delinquent.
“We are really beating the bushes to get what we can so we can be self-determined in the way that the area is developed,” Hodges says.
The next step is for the city to not only formalize the agreement but to start distributing the money for projects, Hodges says.
“It’s one thing to say that you’ve allocated funds or you have access to funds, but if you can’t move the money quickly, it doesn’t make a difference,” she says. “Affordable housing developers are just like other housing developers: time is money.”
Watford says the only reason the campaigns have been successful so far is that they’ve been entirely rooted in the communities that are suffering the most from a shortage of safe, quality, and affordable housing in Baltimore. Residents have gotten tired of their neighborhoods meeting one of two fates, she says: disinvestment and neglect, or redevelopment for the primary benefit of people who are wealthier than the current residents. The coalition is trying to find new ways for people in Baltimore’s poorest communities to set the terms of their own growth.
“What this comes back to is the power of the grassroots and the power of the people on the ground,” Watford says. “Just internalizing the fact that we are creative, we are strong, we have stories that need to be shared. We have power, and we can wield that.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, Grid magazine, and other publications.