Destiny Watford first got involved with United Workers when she was in high school, during a campaign to stop a new trash incinerator from locating in Curtis Bay, the south Baltimore neighborhood where she lives. They eventually staged a sit in. Seven students were arrested, The Baltimore Sun reported. The incinerator never got built.
Watford says that conversations with her schoolmates about environmental rights developed into broader questions about who makes decisions about what to do with land: Why was an incinerator being proposed in Curtis Bay in the first place?
“We don’t have control of land in our neighborhood,” Watford says. “We don’t have the opportunity to make decisions about our neighborhood that’s real.”
Founded in 2002 by homeless day laborers meeting in an abandoned firehouse-turned-shelter, United Workers has maintained a focus on changing that, combining new and old school community organizing tactics to amplify the voices of Baltimore residents whose concerns have historically been ignored or underfunded.
It’s not been easy, but their work is paying off. Last week, in a public meeting, Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Michael Braverman committed to dedicating the first $2 million of city funds for the city’s affordable housing trust fund, nearly two years after the fund’s creation on paper. On behalf of the mayor, Braverman also committed to building a list of potential board appointees for the trust fund in the next 30 days. The city also committed $100,000 to help get some community land trusts up and running.
United Workers helped bring the affordable housing trust fund into existence. It was part of a coalition of grassroots groups who, in the summer of 2016, started organizing to get a question on the ballot to create an affordable housing trust fund that would support a range of housing initiatives, from the creation and preservation of low-income housing to support for community land trusts and housing services for low-income renters. They knocked on doors, talked with residents about the city’s housing needs, and collected 18,000 signatures — nearly twice the 10,000 needed. That November, 83 percent of voters elected to approve the measure.
A year and a half later, the fund existed on paper, but still had no money to distribute. There’s also a widespread sense that the city’s inclusionary housing policy, meant to encourage developers to provide affordable units alongside market-rate ones, is a failure, largely because that legislation as written requires the city to pay developers to create the units. Legislators so far have been unable to agree on where to find that money. So United Workers is back on the streets, trying to build public pressure for affordable housing by going door-to-door.
“We can’t let go of our fundamental expectation that if voters overwhelmingly support something, there’s going to be follow-up,” says Greg Sawtell, an organizer with United Workers. “That’s the most basic element of democracy.”
The group has knocked on thousands of doors in the last few months, Sawtell says. It’s collected postcards from residents to send to individual councilmembers, pushed a #FundTheTrust campaign on Twitter, and held the public meeting with the city’s housing commissioner last week.
As a member of the Baltimore Housing Roundtable, United Workers is also pushing for broader goals, under the banner of the so-called 20/20 Campaign. The campaign calls for the city to dedicate $20 million to support community land trusts, which can develop housing that is kept off the private market, and another $20 million to employ Baltimoreans to deconstruct or rehab vacant homes. They’re also looking to hold Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was elected in 2015, accountable to her professed support of the campaign.
Organizer Terrell Askew says he knows that door-to-door advocacy is effective because it’s how he got involved with United Workers’ campaigns. Askew has experience with street canvassing and petitioning, and says that talking with people in their homes is much more productive than trying to interrupt them on their way to work. At home, residents will open up and “truly take stock of the neighborhood,” he says. Going door-to-door not only helps generate signatures and postcards, but allows advocates to update community members on what’s happening with the initiatives they’ve voted for in the past. It’s the legwork of a more participatory environment for development they’re hoping to create.
In November 2017, a year after the trust fund was created by voters, Baltimore Housing Roundtable members delivered 20,000 petition signatures to City Hall in support of the 20/20 campaign, according to a report in The Baltimore Sun. Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center and chair of the Roundtable’s policy committee, says the door-to-door advocacy that United Workers and others have done was “essential” to getting the question on the ballot in the first place, and keeping up the pressure since.
In recent months, the city council has debated raising property transfer taxes and fees to raise money for the affordable housing trust fund. But so far they haven’t agreed on a stable, recurring revenue source. Councilman John Bullock, the 9th district representative and chair of the city council’s committee on housing and urban affairs, says they have also been talking about how to fix the city’s inclusionary housing law. In most cases, Bullock says, developers are able to simply opt out of building affordable units, because the city has no money to put behind the law. It has generated just 32 affordable units since being adopted in 2007.
Baltimore’s housing issues are varied, too, ranging from a shortage of affordable rental units to a glut of vacant properties. Bullock says that housing needs to be a higher priority, and expects to introduce a bill that would help fill the housing trust fund sometime in the next month.
Braverman says the first affordable trust fund money is coming from a $3 million affordable housing bond that voters also approved in 2016. The city has also approved an additional $10 million in future bonds to support housing efforts. But there’s still no consensus on where to raise stable funding for the trust fund — or how much.
“We want to find a funding source that is sustainable, and will be a net gain in terms of the funding, and not robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Braverman says.
United Workers considers the city’s commitments a step in the right direction. But it’s only a fraction of the investment they’re hoping to see. So they’ll keep up the campaign.
“We have a voice,” Askew says. “Even if they’re not ready to listen to it, we have to raise it up and make them aware that we have a better solution to these chronic problems.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.