1,500 Affordable Housing Units Headed for Baltimore Could Multiply

Originally published in Next City on October 24, 2017.
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The state of Maryland announced in October it would provide 1,500 new affordable housing opportunities in high-opportunity parts of the Baltimore region, a victory for fair housing advocates who filed a federal complaint with HUD in 2011.

The complainants alleged that Maryland administered its Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program in a discriminatory way, steering families with children into high-poverty, black neighborhoods, while building a disproportionate number of affordable units for seniors, especially white seniors, in the predominantly white suburbs.

This legal settlement not only requires Maryland to build new units, but also to offer incentives to developers to build affordable family-size housing, and to consider subsidizing transportation alternatives in areas that lack quality public transit.

Fair housing advocates say that getting 1,500 affordable units off the ground will make it significantly easier to build even more units in high-opportunity areas going forward.

“Once you knock down these barriers, once the development community starts changing its business model to incorporate looking for sites in high-opportunity areas, once the units get built and the sky doesn’t fall — the political opposition tends to lessen,” says Barbara Samuels, a fair housing attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “It builds up its own momentum, and we see these 1,500 units as a step that will lead to other future steps.”

The coalition that filed the complaint, the Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign (BRHC), didn’t expect their efforts to take as long as they did, but they did expect an administrative complaint to move faster than filing a lawsuit.

In 1995, the ACLU of Maryland filed a federal suit taking aim at Baltimore’s racially segregated public housing. Though the court eventually ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, and as part of the legal remedy Baltimore has established one of the most successful housing mobility programs in the U.S., the case didn’t settle until 2012; the lawsuit approach took 17 years.

Meanwhile, the last two decades have brought about increased attention to segregation in the LIHTC program. Florence Roisman, a law professor at Indiana University, published a law review article in 1998 arguing that the LIHTC program, which is run by the Treasury Department, not HUD, was operating outside the confines of civil rights law. As LIHTC is the largest federal program to subsidize place-based affordable rental housing, Roisman urged corrective action.

In 2002, the Connecticut ACLU sued the state’s housing finance agency, arguing that LIHTC units in Hartford led to increased racial segregation, in violation of state law. In 2004, fair housing advocates in New Jersey sued their state, saying its LIHTC policies encouraged racial segregation, in violation of the Fair Housing Act. These and other developments influenced advocates in Maryland, who convened in early 2006, to explore what barriers prevented LIHTC units from being developed in higher-opportunity areas of their state.

It became clear then that one of the largest impediments standing in the way was Maryland’s policy of requiring local officials to sign off on LIHTC development, effectively empowering politicians with a pocket veto, no matter how important the affordable housing project was. A HUD study published in 2015 and conducted by New York University’s Furman Institute singled out Maryland’s local approval policy as one that led to notable increases in LIHTCs being deployed to develop housing in poor neighborhoods. Advocates tried to pressure Maryland to abandon this policy, but when efforts at voluntary persuasion failed, the BRHC filed its complaint.

In 2014, in response to the complaint and increased local advocacy, Maryland’s legislature opted to get rid of its local veto requirement. As part of the new legal settlement announced this month, the state has agreed to never reinstate it.

“If we can accomplish all this here, we can do it anywhere,” says Samuels. “You don’t need to go back far to remember when Baltimore was known as the city that killed [the] Moving to Opportunity [program].” Moving to Opportunity was a housing experiment that ran from 1994 to 1998 and involved moving individuals out of high-poverty areas with vouchers into low-poverty census tracts, to see how this would improve their lives. But politicians and racist homeowners in suburban Baltimore County rebelled early on, and U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland led the effort to kill funding to expand the program nationally.

Now, though, Maryland has a well-regarded mobility program, revamped LIHTC policies as a result of the BRHC fair housing complaint, and in 2016, Baltimore County settled another fair housing complaint, agreeing to spend $30 million over the next decade to support developers building 1,000 affordable units in higher-income neighborhoods. Baltimore County also agreed to establish its own mobility program, to assist families in predominantly black, poor neighborhoods in relocating to more affluent suburbs.

In 2015, a team of Harvard researchers published a study examining the long-term impacts of the Moving to Opportunity program. They found that poor children who moved to better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college and earned more in the workforce when compared to similar adults who hadn’t moved. The researchers also found that of the nation’s 100 largest counties, Baltimore ranked last in terms of facilitating upward mobility — partly due to its high degree of racial and economic segregation. Fair housing is no silver bullet, but Maryland’s renewed commitment to integrated housing is a bright spot for civil rights.

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The Hopes and Fears Around Ben Carson’s Favorite Public Housing Program

Originally published in CityLab on April 21, 2017.

When Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren asked Ben Carson what he would do as HUD secretary to address the condition of U.S. public housing, Carson enthusiastically singled out one program for praise—the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (RAD), a five-year-old federal initiative that has gone largely under the radar. He said he’s “very encouraged” by RAD’s early results, and “looks forward to working with Congress to expand this worthy program.”

RAD works by transferring public housing units to the private sector, so that developers and housing authorities can tap into a broader range of subsidies and financing tools to rehab and manage the units. Given Congress’s refusal to adequately fund public housing and the billions of dollars needed for backlogged repairs, supporters say RAD is the best available option to preserve the affordable units, lest they become too uninhabitable for anyone to live in at all.

Roughly 60,000 public housing units have been converted to project-based Section 8 rentals through RAD since its launch in 2012, and Congress has authorized 185,000 units to be converted in total. Technically, all public housing tenants should be able to return to the private units if they want to, though housing advocates fear the RAD statute has loopholes that could prevent this goal from coming true.

It’s little surprise that RAD—a revenue-neutral program that leverages the private sector—might appeal to leaders like Carson. RAD has garnered strong bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic legislators alike, and many expect its congressional cap to be lifted altogether in the coming years, potentially setting the stage for a radical change to much of the nation’s public housing.

But there are housing advocates concerned about how fast RAD is moving, and they warn that oversight and transparency remain mixed at best. For some tenants, the conversions have been a nightmare.

Katrina Jones, a single mother of three, had been living in public housing for a decade when she learned that her subsidized building in Hopewell, Virginia, would be razed through RAD, and new affordable apartments would be built in its place. Jones, who has one daughter confined to a wheelchair, was thrilled by the prospect of long-overdue housing repairs and upgrades for her 1960s-era building.

However, according to HUD complaints filed in December, the Hopewell housing authority and the nonprofit RAD developer refused to make accommodations for Jones and her family, convincing her to take a tenant buy-out. At the time, Jones’ son was facing criminal charges (which were later dropped), and she needed money to pay his attorney fees. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave., half of which went towards paying attorney fees to defend her son against criminal charges that were later dropped. Jones says the housing authority knew about her son’s situation, and pressured her to take the money and leave.

Jones now works at WalMart and pays $1,450 per month for an accessible unit in Chester, Virginia; her public housing rent had been $400 a month. “I’m living a whole new life right now where I’m struggling more every single day just to keep my current apartment,” she says. “These people don’t care what happens to you once you’re out.”

Jones is one of a dozen former tenants named in complaints recently filed by Virginia legal aid lawyers who say the Hopewell RAD conversions violated a wide range of federal laws and regulations—including unlawful threats of eviction and discrimination against families with children and the disabled. HUD is investigating the allegations, but tenant advocates say the problems documented in Hopewell reflect larger accountability issues related to the program.

It’s not just in Virginia. John Kelly, a 74-year-old tenant living in public housing in San Francisco, is currently under threat of eviction for not signing the lease of his building’s new RAD landlord, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). Kelly, who has been reaching out to housing nonprofits and HUD for the past six months, says the lease he’s being asked to sign is “illegal, dishonest, unconscionable.”

Kelly describes himself as “not a big fan” of government, and he thinks private organizations could do a better job of managing his building than the San Francisco housing authority. But his experience dealing with RAD, he says, has been terrible.

Terry Bagby, a 58-year-old veteran who also lives in Kelly’s building, agrees it’s been extremely stressful. “A lot of our questions go unanswered by all these different agencies that come and have meetings with us,” he says. “I’m surprised I haven’t had another heart attack or stroke dealing with all this nonsense. I’d move out of this city in a heartbeat if I could.”

TNDC did not return multiple requests for comment, but Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Housing Rights Committee, says local groups have been working closely with the city to monitor RAD conversions. Some developers have been responsible, she says; with others it’s been more of a struggle.

“Tenants are distrustful, for real reasons,” says Sherburn-Zimmer, referring to the city’s history of displacement and eviction. “You definitely get some agencies who have young workers, new to town, who tell tenants everything is going to be great. Tenants aren’t stupid; they want everything in writing.”

Whether these are isolated incidents or signs that RAD portends greater risks for tenants in the future is not yet clear. The serious shortcomings of earlier housing programs like HOPE VI and Section 236 loom large. Both Bagby and Kelly expressed fears that their city’s commitment to low-income housing will eventually disappear.

Kim Rolla, a lawyer who helped file the Hopewell complaint, says she and her colleagues got a lot of pushback from other affordable housing advocates after contacting the media about HUD’s investigation. “It was the same week that the budget cuts were announced, and they said, ‘Why would you criticize this HUD program right now?’”

Jessica Casella, a staff attorney with the National Housing Law Project, says that Hopewell is the most egregious complaint she’s heard of, but her organization has documented many kinds of tenant RAD issues over the past few years. She also admits there are many places where nobody really knows how these conversions are going. “One of our major concerns is the level and quality of oversight by HUD,” says Casella. “I think HUD has put its emphasis on getting properties to closing, and much less effort in making sure that after deals are finalized, the transitions go smoothly.”

Transparency around RAD has also been a challenge for advocates, academics, and reporters. Rolla says she and her colleagues faced serious difficulty accessing basic information about the Hopewell RAD deal—and their request to have hundreds of dollars in FOIA fees waived was denied on the grounds that such disclosures were “not in the public interest.”

Tom Davis, the director of HUD’s Office of Recapitalization, which oversees RAD, says his agency is trying to make RAD “the gold standard in terms of protections of residents,” noting that it has far more rules and regulations for tenant treatment than almost any other federal housing program. Davis says there’s also been a lot of work over the last 18 months to upgrade the procedures related to how HUD monitors properties post-conversion, including proactively reaching out to public housing authorities to ensure there are no issues.

“I think if there are any agencies out there meant to protect us, they’re not funded that well,” said Terry Bagby, wearily. “They probably don’t have a lot of people working on their staff, and are underpaid.”

Going forward, as HUD continues investigating Hopewell, advocates hope to make sure that the federal housing agency’s commitment to RAD oversight doesn’t waver.

Should a New Tax Credit From Washington Subsidize Housing for the Middle Class?

Originally published in Next City on November 8, 2016.
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As voters head to the polls to vote on their next president, they will likely encounter a campaign ad or two promising that the candidate in question will deliver a better future for America’s middle-class.

But while presidential elections have long been about playing to the middle-class — or those who consider themselves to be in that hallowed American demographic, the question of how to build housing for them is now coming to Congress.

An Oregon senator has introduced a bill to create a new federal program that would incentivize developers to build and preserve housing accessible to those families earning up to 100 percent of the area median income. In Portland, where the senator lives when he is not in Washington, the 2016 AMI for a family of four is $73,300.

The “Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit” proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is modeled after the 30-year-old Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the largest federal program to support placed-based affordable rental housing, which requires that units must target those earning 60 percent or less of the AMI. Wyden’s idea is to create a program for middle-class families who struggle to afford housing, but who earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies restricted to the poor. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, as the housing industry — including powerful lobbying groups such as the National Association of Home Builders— lines up behind the bill, a growing number of advocates for low-income populations and affordable housing organizations are saying no — and urging the Senator to focus on those with the most several housing needs instead.

National Low-Income Housing Coalition president Diane Yentel says Wyden’s bill is a misguided and wasteful use of federal resources. In an email to Next City, Yentel said that data clearly shows that for households in the 80 percent to 100 percent income band, there’s little to no need for a federal solution. Just 101,623 of those renters are severely cost burdened, compared to the 7.8 million extremely-low income households that have severe cost-burdens.

“There are literally more children living in homeless shelters than there are severely cost-burdened middle-income renters,” Yentel wrote.

For households earning 61-80 percent of AMI that are severely cost-burdened, Yentel says you’ll find them clustered in just a few cities and a better solution to address those problems would be through a different bill co-sponsored by Wyden. That bill would allow some LIHTC developments to target households up to 80 percent of AMI, and to construct more low-income housing through the National Housing Trust Fund. This, she says, would create a “reverse filtering effect” that would help move extremely-low income individuals into affordable housing, and out of housing that would otherwise be affordable to households higher up the income scale.

Defenders of the middle-income tax credit proposal point to data released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies that found that in the 10 highest-cost metro areas, 75 percent of renter households earning $30,000-44,9999, and half of those earning $45,000-74,999 were cost burdened in 2014. In the Oregon cities represented by Wyden, more and more renters are feeling the pressure of a hot housing market.

“One of the arguments the LIHTC people brought up is that if the MIHTC passes, it will take funding away from the LIHTC,” says Carol Ott, an affordable housing advocate in Baltimore. “I’m concerned about this, but I firmly believe if we work hard enough, we can have both.”

Low-income housing advocates are skeptical. In the next Congress there will be major pushes to increase the LIHTC, to create a renters’ tax credit for the lowest-income families, to increase spending for family homelessness, to expand the Section 8 voucher program, and to increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimates that Wyden’s MIHTC proposal would cost $4.5 billion annually when fully implemented, and that to pass such a large housing subsidy for the middle class would very likely crowd out the political will for even larger investments for the poor.

A spokesperson for Wyden’s office told Next City that they’re not worried this would crowd out funding for low-income households, and that if state housing authorities want to use their Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit dollars to bolster their Low-Income Housing Tax Credit pool, they can do that.

Wyden is the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee, and if Democrats regain control of the Senate after Election Day, his office says that pushing forward the Middle-Income Housing Tax Credit would “absolutely” a top legislative priority.

Why Subsidizing Teacher Housing with Tax Credits Is Bad Policy

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 24, 2016.
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Late last month California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Teacher Housing Act of 2016—a bill (as its preamble states) that will “facilitate the acquisition, construction, rehabilitation, and preservation of affordable housing restricted to teachers and school district employees.” Critically, the legislation allows California to use its federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) to finance teacher housing—making it the first state in the country to do so.

The law has been sold as a win-win for everyone, and certainly on its face, it sounds appealing. There’s broad recognition that housing is increasingly expensive —especially in exorbitantly pricey cities like San Francisco. Americans strongly support their public school teachers—77 percent say they continue to “trust and have confidence” in them. Moreover, California is grappling with teacher shortages, and champions of the new law believe that providing housing assistance could help attract and retain quality educators, strengthening local communities to boot.

But make no mistake: There are some real losers here.

The LIHTC was established as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, and today it is the country’s largest federal program to support place-based, affordable rental housing. The Internal Revenue Service runs it, but individual states get considerable freedom to decide how to distribute their tax credits, so long as they meet federal requirements. One such requirement is that units must target households earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

This 60 percent threshold is notably higher than other federal affordable housing programs, like Section 8 vouchers and public housing. While LIHTC units built in high-poverty neighborhoods house extremely poor tenants, plenty aren’t built there, which is why tax-credit tenants tend to have higher incomes than recipients of other federal rental assistance programs.

Given that federal housing subsidies are in limited supply, the allocation of tax credits to fund teacher housing merits more scrutiny that it’s received.

“The low-income housing tax credit is meant for single mothers who didn’t graduate from high school, not those people with college degrees and masters degrees,” says Keren Horn, an economist at University of Massachusetts Boston who studies the LIHTC. “Tax credits are targeted at 60 percent of AMI, and if teachers in your metropolitan area are earning less than that, I think the answer is you have to raise their income.”

And then of course, how do we justify giving housing subsidies to some public workers but not others? Why subsidize teachers’ housing but not nurses’? Or trash collectors’?

“It’s a bad idea, and it gets people competing with each other over who is the most oppressed,” says Peter Dreier, an urban policy professor at Occidental College. “A lot of colleges provide housing subsidies for their employees, and if an employer wants to do that as a benefit, or something negotiated through collective bargaining—sure. But the government shouldn’t be in that business.”

Nationally, nearly 20 million renter households have incomes low enough to qualify for federal subsidies, but fewer than one out of four of these households receive anything at all. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the number of unassisted renters with “worst case” housing needs—meaning they pay more than half of their incomes for housing, or live in severely substandard conditions—rose by 30 percent between 2007 and 2013.

These trends hold broadly true in California as well. In 2016, more than 1,590,000 poor California households paid more than half their incomes on rent, a 28 percent increase from before the recession. The budget for public housing in the state shrank by more than $56 million between 2010 and 2014. More than 113,000 Californians live in shelters, or on the streets.

California’s new teacher housing law does not make more money available for developers of affordable housing; it allows developers to amend the list of eligible recipients. The result is potentially fewer resources available for deeply impoverished families.

The law also carries racial implications. During the 2014-2015 school year, 65 percent of California public school teachers were white; four percent were black, and 19 percent were Hispanic. By contrast, a 2012 HUD report says that roughly 56 percent of the residents in California’s tax credit units were black or Hispanic, and only 28 percent were white. It’s realistic to worry that this new law will facilitate the transfer of resources away from poor people of color to (oft-struggling) middle-class white professionals.

The federal government used to prohibit states from awarding LIHTC to specific occupations. There’s an IRS rule that all residential units have to be available for “general public use.”

But in 2008, as Congress was working on a new housing bill in the wake of the housing market collapse, a group of developers who build housing for artists successfully lobbied for a “general use” exemption. Since then, LIHTC-funded housing complexes restricted specifically for artists have increased considerably.

In May, the Prospect covered a new report on these artist housing complexes, which were found to have far whiter and comparatively more affluent tenants than one typically finds in LIHTC projects. Coining these developments “Politically Opportune Subsidized Housing”—or POSH—the report’s authors noted that such projects carry great political appeal, since using tax credits to support redevelopment and urban revitalization—in this case, supporting the arts—is far less divisive than building new housing for poor black and Latino families.

Myron Orfield, the director of the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity, which published the artist housing report, says teacher housing feels an awful lot like artist housing. (In fact, California’s new teacher housing law was passed precisely to legislate the same kind of statutory exemption that Congress carved out for artists in 2008.)

Orfield also notes the lucrative opportunities these projects offer developers, who often struggle to use affordable housing tax credits in more affluent communities. The prospects for LIHTC construction in suburban areas become much more favorable if the developments would go towards housing middle-class public school teachers, who are disproportionately white.

“If you build housing in whiter, suburban neighborhoods, those projects would be worth more to the developer, they would appreciate faster, and there also would be more incentives for developers to turn the units into market-rate rentals as fast as they can,” says Orfield. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to build higher-value housing, but what you should do is build true affordable housing for low-income people, instead of taking a political short cut by making it only for teachers.”

The teacher housing idea is already spreading to other states, including areas that do not face acute struggles to afford housing. In Baltimore, where some teacher housing developments recently cropped up, developers say they built it not because affordable housing was hard to find, but because they wanted to reward educators with “Class-A apartments.” In Newark, developers touted the urban revitalization potential of teacher housing. Others say teacher housing will lead to stronger relationships between students and educators, fortifying communities more broadly.

It’s worth noting that while a growing number of researchers have explored how housing instability negatively impacts student achievement, there is no real evidence that says teachers living in the same school district where they work improves public education, student-teacher relationships, or local communities. And as The Learning Policy Institute, a Palo Alto-based education think tank noted last month, housing incentive programs have never even been studied to determine if they’re effective at recruiting or retaining teachers. (An LA Times investigation found that local teachers earned too much to even qualify for the affordable housing complexes the Los Angeles Unified School District recently built for its educators.) Plus, while research does suggest that teacher turnover negatively affects student learning, plenty of workers take on longer commutes in exchange for higher salaries.

Evidence of a national teacher housing crisis is also thin: A report issued last month by the National Housing Conference found that high school teachers earning median wages could rent a two-bedroom home in 94 percent of the 210 metro areas they studied, and teachers could purchase a median-price home in 62 percent of the metro areas. The report did not even take into account whether the teacher had a second income-earner in their household, suggesting the homeownership statistics are likely much higher.

Rather than carve out exceptions for certain jobs, Dreier says his state must tackle the housing crisis afflicting all middle class Californians, which means building more permanently affordable mixed-income housing, and protecting and preserving the affordable housing that already exists. In an era of tight resources, the public must find ways to prioritize supports for the most disadvantaged families, while also identifying new ways to improve the lives of the middle class. That’s the only real win-win.

 

What The Texas Ruling Means for Fair Housing

Originally published in Next City on September 9, 2016.
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Fair housing advocates scored a major victory in 2015 when the Supreme Court upheld the so-called “disparate impact” standard, a legal theory that says individuals can allege housing discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act without having to prove that someone intentionally sought to discriminate. The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Dallas-based nonprofit, had argued in court that the Texas Department of Housing awarded its low-income housing tax credits in a way that perpetuated segregation, concentrating affordable housing in black neighborhoods with high poverty.

Lost amid the excitement of the nation’s highest court reiterating the aims of the Fair Housing Act, a law passed in 1968 that bars housing discrimination and requires recipients of federal funds to promote housing integration, was that ICP’s original case got sent back to a lower court for review. Two weeks ago, a district judge in Texas issued a new ruling for this case, finding that ICP failed to prove housing discrimination under the disparate impact theory. Their case has been dismissed, and they have not yet decided if they’ll appeal.

Fair housing disparate impact cases are fairly rare, and also hard to win. Stacy Seicshnaydre, a professor at Tulane University Law School, has analyzed the history of disparate impact claims brought under the Fair Housing Act. She found that plaintiffs were successful in only 20 percent of their cases on appeal, a notably low rate.

Seicshnaydre says that disparate impact cases under the Fair Housing Act are just generally more expensive and difficult, compared to other kinds of suits. They tend to require more outside expertise, for example, since one has to include a statistical analysis demonstrating there have been disparities.

“A Supreme Court decision eliminating the disparate impact theory would have been a huge setback,” says Seicshnaydre. “The fact that the district court decided the ICP didn’t prove its case is disappointing, but it doesn’t have the same impact that a Supreme Court decision would have had. Disparate impact theory is still recognized as a good theory, so I think that’s still an incredibly favorable result for the fair housing movement.”

Indeed, the past year and a half has brought about a host of additional gains for integration advocates. Just before the Supreme Court released its decision in 2015, Harvard economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz released a study illustrating the connections between one’s geography and economic mobility. The researchers analyzed which counties were the worst for facilitating upward mobility, demonstrating how opportunity is significantly impacted by where a person grows up. Research released this spring by Eric Chyn, an economist at the University of Michigan, found additional evidence to support the idea that moving poor children into higher-opportunity neighborhoods carries long-term benefits for them as adults.

The federal government has also stepped up its efforts to promote fair housing. Following the Supreme Court decision, HUD released a new federal rule to provide communities with the supports they need to meet their fair housing obligations. They have since pushed for historic fair housing settlements in places like Maryland and Minnesota, emphasizing the need to affirmatively integrate housing under the Fair Housing Act.

“These efforts and events are having an impact. They’re encouraging, and sometimes forcing, communities to grapple with difficult, entrenched issues that were decades in the making,” says Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “Much more scrutiny is being given to where and how affordable housing is developed.”

There have also been notable improvements in Texas since ICP first brought its original suit. The state agency revised its process for allocating housing tax credits, now offering greater rewards to developers seeking to build in higher-income areas. Some recalcitrant towns have presented challenges, but in Dallas, a housing committee on the city council has been working on a plan to expand affordable housing units throughout the city, as part of a major effort to write the city’s first-ever housing policy. The Dallas Morning News editorial board recently praised these efforts to create more mixed-income neighborhoods, saying this carries “the potential to make Dallas a more equitable city for all of its residents.” The committee’s proposals should head to the full city council as soon as next month.

Ultimately, to achieve fair housing, Yentel says we’ll need greater investment in programs like the National Housing Trust Fund and Section 8 vouchers, in order to expand access to affordable housing, while also revitalizing distressed areas. “Realizing fair housing means providing low-income people with genuine choices about where to live,” she says. “And that requires that we work towards making every community one of opportunity.”

Baltimore Can’t Rely on ‘Judge Judy’ to Protect Renters

Originally published in Next City on December 9, 2015.
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Every year, more than 6,000 Baltimore renters and their families are evicted. Across the U.S., only Detroit has a higher percentage of residents facing that same fate. While it’s been all too easy for Baltimore officials to chalk this grim reality up to the wretched effects of poverty, a new report tells a more complete story.

“Justice Diverted,” issued by the Public Justice Center (in collaboration with the Right to Housing Alliance and scholars from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore) is based on a study of Baltimore tenants called to rent court. Housed in the District Court of Maryland, the court is where landlords take renters who are late on their monthly payments. Through examining hundreds of surveys, in-depth interviews, court records and city data, the researchers discovered that the court systematically “prioritizes efficiencies which privilege the landlord’s bottom line.”

While activists and legal experts previously suspected that rent court had a disproportionate impact on black families in Baltimore, advocates are now armed with concrete data to make a political case for reform. The study found that most people who are called to rent court — and ultimately evicted — are black women living near the federal poverty line and raising at least one child. Though black women make up 34 percent of Baltimore’s population, they comprised 79 percent of those surveyed in the rent court study.

Although rodent infestations, plumbing leaks and peeling paint could all be grounds for withheld rent, most tenants summoned to court were unfamiliar with their legal rights. Some tried to prepare by searching the Internet and watching movies and “Judge Judy,” but 73 percent of those surveyed did not know they could raise a defense if their house or apartment had serious defects. Indeed, nearly 80 percent reported at least one housing health or safety threat when they showed up to court. Nearly 60 percent cited insect or rodent problems, 37 percent cited plumbing leaks, and 41 percent cited lead poisoning anxieties due to chipping paint.

Unlike Baltimore’s foreclosure crisis — which elicited a sense of public emergency and outcry — the eviction crisis has largely been ignored. But in 2009, in the midst of the housing market crash, Baltimore’s eviction rate actually exceeded the rate of ratified mortgage foreclosures; by 2013, Baltimore’s eviction rate exceeded that of foreclosure filings.

One reason for the lack of attention: There’s no system to track data about who is being evicted, and when and why. “It is essential that the city direct funds to creating and disseminating data on rent eviction so that homelessness prevention strategies and housing policies reflect the real indicators of city renters’ hardship,” the report concluded.

The report makes more recommendations for reforming rent court and ameliorating the city’s eviction crisis. To reduce the number of eviction cases filed annually (currently 150,000), the city could instate a mandatory pre-filing period, like those that exist in the vast majority of states. Requiring pre-filing notices enables most rental disputes to be resolved without resorting to litigation.

The court could also more closely investigate whether landlords who file claims are properly licensed and compliant with lead paint laws. The researchers found that a majority of landlords presented the court with incorrect or incomplete registration and licensing information — but were not caught or held to account. Baltimore could also expand its licensing and property inspection requirements, because the current legal protections fail to cover the full range of rental units that tenants reside in.

Other recommendations were focused on leveling the playing field for tenants inside the courtroom and helping families avoid the traumatic hardship of losing their homes overall in the city. The authors call for increasing tenant legal representation, court assistance and funding for eviction prevention programs.

Judge John P. Morrissey, the chief judge of the Maryland District Court, told the Baltimore Sun that many of the recommendations outlined in the report would require a legislative response from lawmakers in Annapolis. Which is why the report was timed to coincide with the launch of the 7,000 Families Campaign — a political effort to stop the “housed-to-homeless” pipeline for poor Baltimore families and push for local reforms.

“We can correct some of this through legislative fixes at the state and city level, but that’s going to take some muscle,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with the Right to Housing Alliance. “It’s going to take a unified renter-led movement, and growing our collective power. More than half of the population of Baltimore City are renters, and it’s time that the eviction crisis, and the role that rent court plays in it, is taken seriously.”

Can Affordable Housing Help Retain Teachers?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 18, 2015.
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On December 1, Allison Leshefsky, an elementary school gym teacher in San Francisco, will be evicted from the rent-controlled apartment she’s lived in for the past ten years. She and her partner pay $2,000 a month in rent, but if their place were put on the market, it would likely go for at least $5,000 a month—far more than any public school teacher could afford. As of August 2015, one-bedroom apartments in San Francisco rented for an average of $2,965 a month, and two-bedrooms for $3,853. Leshefsky’s landlord, who manages and partially owns nine San Francisco properties, has gained notoriety for evicting or allegedly forcing tenants out, in order to rent their units for more money.

Leshefsky has decided to finish out the school year teaching in San Francisco, even if that means paying jacked up prices for an air mattress she finds on Craigslist. “I’m making a commitment to get through the rest of the year regardless of whose couch I’m on or whose overpriced house I’m in,” she says. “I’m making a commitment to my students to finish this out.” But then, she says, she’ll have to leave.

In recent years, a growing number of researchers, policymakers, and philanthropists have directed their attention to the relationship between housing instability and student achievement. A great deal of evidence has shown how homelessness and housing insecurity can negatively impact a student’s behavior, which creates problems not only for them but for their classmates and teachers as well. A host of educational interventions are being tried in conjunction with local housing authorities, and some cities are even tying housing vouchers to specific struggling schools—in the hopes that such requirements will reduce student turnover and increase school performance.

Yet despite the perennial quest for top-notch teachers, less attention has been paid to the relationship between educators and their housing. It doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to think that teachers’ instructional capacities could be impacted by conditions they face outside the classroom, such as high rents, or unsafe housing. “There is no possible way the city can recruit talented people and maintain them with the housing crisis here,” says Leshefsky. “Students deserve teachers that are secure in their homes, and when a teacher is not secure, they can’t be the most effective educator.”

The city of San Francisco seems to agree. Last month, San Francisco’s mayor announced a new plan, formed in partnership with the school district and the teachers union, to provide housing assistance to some 500 public school teachers by 2020. Elements of the plan include forgivable loans, rental subsidies, housing counseling services, and the development of affordable housing specifically for teachers. This month, 73 percent  of San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will help make this plan a reality.

Across the country, other variants of teacher housing developments have cropped up, or are in the works—though the motivations for them, and allies behind them, differ from city to city. From San Francisco, to West Virginia, to Philadelphia, the efforts to attract, or retain, teachers through subsidized housing is growing more pronounced, and debates over how such projects impact their surrounding communities are likely to intensify in the coming years.

MATTHEW HARDY, the communications director for the San Francisco teachers union, says the union has a three-pronged strategy to deal with the city’s housing crisis. The first involves fighting for higher wages. In December 2014, the union negotiated a substantial salary increase for teachers and aides—a raise of more than 12 percent over three years. “But if we just limited ourselves to that, we’re not going to be successful,” says Hardy, which is why the union has also been pushing for teacher housing—using surplus district property—and for broader affordable housing policies for all city residents.

“Of course San Francisco is a wonderful place, and some people are willing to make immediate sacrifices to get their foot in the door, but it gets to a point where teachers start to wonder if they should continue paying $1,500 a month for a tiny room or move to the suburbs [where salaries are higher and housing is cheaper] and make $15,000-$20,000 more,” says Hardy. “We need to find ways to support teachers early in their careers, but also those who are more experienced and might want to start a family or buy a home.”

“If affordable brick-and-mortar teacher housing were actually here right now, and not several years in the future, then there would be no doubt in my mind that I would have continued to stay in the district,” Leshefsky said, wearily.

A very different sort of housing crisis plagues McDowell County, West Virginia—a poor, rural area, with a population that’s fallen by 80 percent since the 1950s. Teachers aren’t being priced out, but few want to move there, and those who might be so inclined struggle to find attractive housing options.

In 2011, former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin asked Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), to help her figure out a way to improve McDowell’s school system. They started to organize a coalition of public and private organizations to tackle not only educational issues, but also regional poverty. In a speech given in 2012, Weingarten called this effort “solution-driven unionism.” Rather than shut down a school that’s struggling, she argued, unions can push to strengthen them with wraparound services. Then “learning improves, the school improves, community schools become more attractive than private or charter schools, people return to them with new confidence, home values increase and communities are renewed.”

Part of the McDowell plan includes not just wraparound services for community members, but also new apartments to attract teachers who might not otherwise want to move to McDowell County. As the lead coordinator involved in the teacher housing complex told Governing, “You can’t expect someone to leave life on a college campus for an isolated area where they live in the middle of nowhere and don’t know anybody.”

“What we’re constructing is the first multiple-story building in the area in decades,” said Weingarten in an interview. “The housing will address three big issues: the high teacher vacancy rate, the dearth of available housing, and the need for economic development.”

WHILE McDOWELL COUNTY’S “teacher village” won’t be the nation’s first, others are generally found in urban areas, and have been constructed largely without the involvement of the local teachers unions. In fact, partners more closely aligned to the educational reform movement have led them—those with ties to charter school networks and organizations like Teach for America.

In 2012, then-Mayor of Newark Cory Booker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, leaders from Google and Goldman Sachs, and others gathered to break ground on the Newark Teachers Village—a downtown Newark development that houses three charter schools, a daycare facility, more than 200 subsidized teacher apartments, and nearly two dozen retail shops. The project received tens of millions of dollars in tax credits. (The Wall Street Journal reported on the event with the headline: “Viewing Newark as a ‘Blank Canvas’”.) The real estate development group that spearheaded the project, RBH Group, is listed as a Teach for America corporate sponsor, and one of RBH’s founding partners, Ron Beit, is the chairman of the board of TFA’s New Jersey chapter.

The Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the AFT, originally backed the Newark Teachers Village—though Newark teachers say that their now-deceased president, Joseph Del Grosso, did so without consulting union members. The AFT is an affiliate member of the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor organizations that includes construction unions, and some think Del Grosso supported the plan because it carried the potential to create new construction jobs, not because it was actually in the teachers’ interest. However, despite Del Grosso’s initial support, the union was ultimately uninvolved with the project.

“They basically shut out the public school teachers and the public school union,” said Weingarten in an interview. “Just like they shut out the community from their reform efforts, they shut us out too. Initially we had conversations [about the Teachers Village], and then we were stonewalled.” Had the AFT been involved, then the union likely would have invested pension funds into the project, which may have broadened, and diversified, the project’s mission, and given more stakeholders a say in shaping its development. The union could have also pushed to bring on different types of asset managers, like the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which they used in West Virginia and San Francisco. Ron Beit did not return repeated requests for comment.

Over the past couple years, similar teacher housing projects have opened up in other East Coast cities. In 2009, the Seawall Development Corporation established Miller’s Court in Baltimore, using millions of dollars in local, state, and federal tax credits—and another, Union Mill, a few years later. The lead developer, Donald Manekin, was a former board member of Teach For America, and said he originally got the idea to build teacher villages when he saw 100 new TFA members arriving in Baltimore each year. “We’d sit at the end of these board meetings and say wouldn’t it be great if there was a great place for teachers new to the city?” He made these remarks to Newsworks in 2013, as his company prepared to build another teacher housing complex in Philadelphia.

Teach For America’s vice president for administration, Matt Gould, told The New York Times that his organization backs the projects because they “allow [teachers] to have safe, affordable housing. It’s a recruiting tool.” Teach For America is also reportedly looking into New Orleans and Washington as additional cities to expand teacher housing.

I spoke with Thibault Manekin, Donald Manekin’s son, and co-founder of Seawall Development Corporation, about his work building teacher housing. “Really our goal was to provide Class-A apartments and space for teachers doing the most important work in our city, which is helping kids get an education,” he said. To do this, the Manekins provide teachers with a free fitness center, free parking, reduced rent, lounge space, and other amenities that one might find in a more expensive apartment building. (Their website describes the buildings as “an urban oasis”.) Manekin says his company is in the middle of a similar project in Springfield, Massachusetts, and helping others think through comparable developments in other cities. “Yeah, I think you’ll start to see this spread more,” he said.

I asked him if he thought Baltimore teachers had struggled to find safe or affordable housing before he and his father embarked on their projects. “I think the challenge was that teachers, often new to Baltimore, and new to the classroom, weren’t living with like-minded people, and so might be making bad decisions on where to live,” he said. “As a result of that it makes the job that much harder. We just wanted to provide them with a world class space at a significant discount.”

While safe and affordable housing was available, he went on, “you wouldn’t really be living with people in the same boat as you.” They wanted to establish a space where teachers could lean on one another outside of the workplace.

Weingarten says the union was not included in the Philadelphia project, and was only cursorily consulted with for the Baltimore developments.

BRANDEN RIPPEY, a Newark public school teacher who has been working in the district for 18 years, said he acknowledges that Newark needs to build better housing to attract high-quality teachers. “Newark isn’t San Francisco. You do need to work to draw people in, and some of the housing we have here is in bad neighborhoods, and there is crime,” he says. As well, most of Newark’s teachers live outside of the city, so the idea of enabling teachers to establish roots as residents within the community is something he also likes. “I support the idea of creating good, affordable housing for working class people. The problem is that [the Newark Teachers Village] is clearly designed for white, young professional types, at a time when we desperately need more housing for poor people of color.”

Rippey notes that the Teachers Village is located close to other redevelopment projects in downtown Newark. “It’s just becoming a little yuppie commercial district,” he says. “The reality is they have a vision for gentrifying the whole downtown.” Rippey believes that these projects serve as a way to easily import TFA teachers, and by extension, weaken union power. Whereas developers like Beit and Manekin see the teacher housing complexes as positive ways to build communal spaces for local educators, Rippey thinks they can serve as a vehicle to isolate new and relatively young teachers from the union and the broader community. “It’ll keep those teachers residentially, and almost culturally, segregated,” he says.

IN A WAY, these Teachers Villages function as sort of a camp experience. You may be making a two-year commitment to live and work in an unfamiliar city, one that perhaps you, or your family, worry is unsafe. You know that you’re going to be working hard, long days—and so living in close quarters with people going through similar experiences might be quite comforting. All in all, it appears to be a pretty good deal—you’ll be afforded lots of amenities and discounts, you’ll live in a place you know is secure, and you’ll have the chance to develop friendships with other “like-minded” individuals.

In 2013, Mark Weber, a public school teacher and an education policy doctoral student, wrote some strong critiques about these new teacher housing projects.

It’s the perfect scheme: Beit and his private investors get tens of millions of dollars in tax credits to finance the development. He then turns around and rents his commercial units to charter schools, which drain tax revenues away from the neighboring public schools (which could sorely use the money to shore up their crumbling infrastructures). Those schools then pay their young teachers, recruited from TFA, who then turn around and pay rent to Beit. So Beit’s managed to develop three revenue streams—tax credits, charter school rents, and teacher residence rents—all made possible by the proliferation of charters and TFA.

And here’s the real beauty part: If the neighborhood gets gentrified and property values rise, the increases accrue to the property owners—like Beit—but not the people who actually live in the neighborhood. Think about it: If these teachers were buying brownstones and condos, the rising property values would accrue to them. But, because they’re renters, and not owners, they don’t see any of the increase. Their presence will raise the value of the neighborhood’s properties, but they’ll get none of the reward (assuming everything goes according to plan).

I called Weber to discuss some of his thoughts in greater detail. He sounded skeptical that these subsidized projects had much value at all: Will they really help attract lifelong educators into the profession, or will they just serve as a nice perk for young teachers who wouldn’t stay in the classroom beyond a few years anyway?

“If these charter schools need young people who are willing to work long hours and do the career for just a couple years, then things like teacher villages are almost custom-made, because you’re not going to be buying condos, and it’s close to your work,” he said. “Is that sustainable? I would argue no if we’re trying to build a workforce that sees teaching as a lifetime career. We could continue to build, or we can ask ourselves if we’re paying teachers enough money. If you can’t comfortably live here without staying in subsidized housing, maybe that’s a problem.”

Others have also questioned whether this whole subsidized housing deal isn’t just a misplaced way to avoid paying teachers significantly higher salaries. An individual used to feel more comfortable entering the teaching profession—despite its lack of prestige or big paychecks—given the relative stability if offered: a middle-class life, solid health care benefits, and a stable pension to live on during retirement. Today, however, those sorts of guarantees are beginning to fall by the wayside.

“If you’re not going to offer good health care benefits, what are you going to offer to get people to join the profession?” asked Weber. “Some modest rent control in hip neighborhoods? That’s not going to help the neighborhood much, and that’s not going to be much of an incentive to go into teaching.”

MAYBE SUBSIDIZED HOUSING that targets young professionals won’t be what it takes to help attract career educators, yet it’s clear that cities do want to help recruit and retain educators who actually live in the communities in which they serve—an effort that may require more than just a salary increase (though that would help.) Whether it’s a Teach for America participant looking for a supportive communal space, or a mid-career educator with a family who wants to live closer to his or her workplace, thinking about the intersections between housing and teaching is something that even the most progressive unionists, like Rippey, believe we should be doing more of.

Weingarten defended the AFT’s McDowell and San Francisco projects, and contrasted them with the ones in Baltimore, Newark, and Philadelphia. “We’re not looking to create a boutique pipeline for some people to work in different communities, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s about creating affordable housing so people can establish roots in the cities in which they live.”

Still, even teacher villages more closely aligned to the reform movement are helping young teachers, and local nonprofit organizations, forge better ties with the communities in which they serve. “The amount of teachers that have actually stayed in the classroom and in Baltimore, and then gone out and bought homes has been really inspiring to see,” said Thibault Manekin. Of the 30 homes he and his father have built in Baltimore, he says 20 have been sold to former tenants of Miller’s Court and Union Mill.

Would Leshefsky be willing to live outside San Francisco and continue working at her school with a longer daily commute?

“No, I would not be willing to do a two-hour commute just to serve a community that I don’t belong to,” she said. “I’m one of the most constant people in my students’ lives right now, and I don’t think someone who lives outside the city can necessarily connect with their students in the same way. We’re all going through very similar struggles.”

 

Goodbye Public Housing?

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 12, 2015.
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In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program—a far-reaching effort to preserve the government’s affordable units by transferring them into the private sector. Rather than have Congress directly fund local housing authorities to support the program, RAD allows private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. The contracts, which are set to continually renew every 15-20 years, require developers to keep units affordable for low-income tenants.

While Congress initially authorized just 65,000 units to be transferred—roughly five percent of the nation’s 1.2 million public housing stock—it later upped the RAD cap to 185,000 units, under pressure from the Obama administration and a coalition of public housing authorities, real estate developers, and other stakeholders. In August 2014, I took a deep look at the RAD program, and explored the concerns that tenants and housing advocates shared about its risks.

Last week I spoke with Alex Schwartz, a professor of urban policy at The New School, who has been researching some preliminary RAD data. He presented his unpublished findings at the International Sociological Association RC43 Conference this past September.

One key assumption behind RAD is that public housing was never that politically popular to begin with, and that it’s unlikely it’ll become more popular in the near future. Due to its low level of political support, (despite residents who live there being relatively satisfied), Congress has financially starved the program for decades; HUD estimates that nearly $30 billion would be required to repair and rehab the units at this point. And the longer it takes to make such repairs, the more unsafe and uninhabitable the units will become. Each year, roughly 10,000 units are permanently removed from the public housing program, through demolition or dispositions.

Through RAD, public housing units are “converted” into Project-Based Section 8 rentals, thereby becoming eligible for debt financing, tax credits, and other private funding sources that can be used to help cover rehab and maintenance costs.

While Congress has decreased federal funding for public housing over the past two decades, it has increased funding for project-based rental assistance during this time. Between fiscal year 2005 and fiscal year 2015, appropriations for project-based rental assistance increased by 82 percent, and appropriations for public housing’s Capital Fund decreased by 27 percent.

In other words, by transferring the affordable units out of the public housing program into one that has received more political and financial support, RAD proponents feel they will be better able to preserve the physical units over the long haul, even if they become less “public” as a result.

In his paper, Schwartz explains that:

Historically, because project-based rental assistance is largely used to support low-income properties with subsidy contracts involving private owners, Congress has been reluctant to undermine these contracts by failing to appropriate adequate sums for the program. If appropriations for project-based rental assistance falls short of the need required by the subsidy contracts, the properties would be at risk of foreclosure. At times Congress has delayed its appropriations for this program, and sometimes it has provided funding for less than a full year, but it has seldom cut back support for project-based rental assistance by a substantial amount.

The biggest takeaway, for me, is that there’s a great possibility that public housing will ultimately end in the United States. While RAD is often framed as a way to “save public housing”—that’s not quite accurate. RAD is designed to help fund much-needed capital repairs, and provide financing options to keep the units habitable and affordable in the future. But the only way it works is by transferring the properties out of the public housing program, and into the Project-Based Section 8 world.

Schwartz thinks there are some units that are in such bad shape, located mostly in high-poverty neighborhoods, that not even tax credits, mortgage financing, and other RAD funding streams will be sufficient to attract private developers to fix them up. In light of this, the Obama administration requested that Congress appropriate $10 million to the RAD program, to help repair those units with particularly challenging needs. But Congress was adamant that RAD remain a “revenue-neutral” program, and refused to do so.

What this means is that if RAD expands, which it likely will, then we’ll see most affordable units transferred out of the public housing program, and those that remain will be the ones in the most abysmal shape.

“If people had a bad image of public housing before, it’ll just get even worse,” said Schwartz in an interview. “It’s analogous to the health insurance pool—where all the healthy people leave, and then you’re just left with just those who have the most expensive health needs.” Ultimately Schwartz thinks that whatever properties remain in the program will be left to decay until they are eventually demolished once and for all.

Welcome to the Courtroom That Is Every Renter’s Nightmare

Originally published in Next City (with illustrations by Sky Kalfus!) on September 14th, 2015.
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Deborah Jennings lives in a house in East Baltimore with her daughter and granddaughter. When she first moved in nearly five years ago, she was working as a nursing support technician, helping to draw blood. Hours were long, but she was able to pay her bills. That changed two years ago, when she became disabled and had to stop working. Without a steady paycheck, 57-year-old Jennings has struggled to pay her rent, and each month, that means a trip to rent court.

Each courtroom visit, the same complaints are made, the same issues described, and the same ultimatum given: Jennings must pay her rent or risk eviction. Although the conditions of her house are poor — the basement sink had water running for two months straight, paint hangs from her roof and water has settled in the ceilings — Jennings is in no position to negotiate. “You can start talking, but then the judges say, ‘I understand, but we’re here in reference to this rent, do you owe this rent?’ They don’t want to hear whether or not you have any issues,” Jennings says. “They don’t want none of that.”

“I’m not expecting to live here free,” she adds. “I said bear with me, you’re going to get your rent.”

Each year, Baltimore landlords file roughly 150,000 cases in rent court, which is housed in the District Court of Maryland. The city has 125,000 occupied rental units. Many tenants, like Jennings, are taken multiple times per year.

Despite its undeniable public impact, rent court remains one of city’s least transparent institutions. Any public records are hard to come by and in an era of metrics and open data, analysis of courtroom verdicts appears to be nonexistent.

“People know about it, but there’s no interest to understand why this keeps happening year after year,” says Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center. “The whole system just does not function as it should.”

In the neighborhood of Oliver, where Jennings lives, nearly a third of families live below the poverty line, many of them on blighted blocks checkered with vacancy. Yet Oliver, along with other sections of Baltimore, is slowly beginning to see population trends reverse and new investment trickle in. With new residents and development come higher rents and more pressure for tenants like Jennings to pay up or get out.

“There is a lot of development in Oliver, a lot of new homeowners, but there are still a lot of people without a lot of money here,” says Darryl Dunaway, office manager and community organizer with the Oliver Community Association. “We hear about rent court all day. From 9 a.m. to 12, I am sending people down to 501 East Fayette Street for eviction prevention. I sent someone there this morning.”

Dunaway says that the community association and others like it around the city help as many people as they can each month, but there is only so much that can be done. “If you can’t pay one month, there is help. You come back next month and you are on your own,” he says.

Originally created to provide a nationwide model of justice for landlords and tenants, Baltimore’s housing court today serves as little more than a state-run rent collection agency, financed by taxpayers and the beleaguered renters themselves who pay court fees for each judgment ruled against them.

“The court system is not for the tenant,” says Jennings wearily. “It just becomes a money thing. It’s no longer about human beings.”

A Court Designed for Tenants

In 1936, the Baltimore Sun published a series of articles that illustrated some of the horrific conditions of Baltimore slums — where 40 percent of the city then lived. With the highest proportion of substandard housing among America’s big cities, local Baltimore officials moved to take action. But by 1941, unsatisfied with the city’s slow progress, some individuals formed the Citizens Planning and Housing Association to apply more pressure. What emerged in Baltimore — a campaign for new building and sanitation codes, and stronger mechanisms for enforcement — would eventually influence the wave of urban renewal across the country, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Federal Housing Act of 1954.

The Baltimore Plan, as it came to be known, was based on a model of setting — and vigorously enforcing — minimum housing standards. The hope was to one day clean up all of Baltimore’s slums; if some delinquent properties had to be removed, so be it. Besides beefing up the number of housing inspections, reformers also wanted to create a special housing court designed to enforce the new standards. Even in the 1950s, regular courts were fairly overwhelmed, and disputes like rental issues were simply low-priority cases. The idea was to create a new space where both landlords and tenants could come in and expect a fair and thorough hearing. The courts would hold landlords accountable to health and sanitation standards, while landlords could expect the backing of the court if tenants were damaging their property or failing to pay rent. Baltimore’s rental housing court would become the first of its kind in the country. Today, most cities have similar systems in place.

“It was supposed to be about fundamentally changing the way property relations work,” says Daniel Pasciuti, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies Baltimore’s rent court.

By the late 1960s and ’70s, widespread tenants’ rights changes were taking place all over the United States. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act became law, barring housing discrimination. Six years later, the federal government launched the Section 8 program, offering rental vouchers so eligible low-income tenants could live in private buildings, and in turn, requiring landlords to afford federally subsidized tenants a new set of rights. Perhaps the most notable reform, however, came from a federal ruling in 1970, Javins v. First National Realty Corp., where the D.C. Circuit ruled that if a living situation is deemed uninhabitable, the tenant is freed from his obligation to pay rent. This establishment of “the implied warrant of habitability” was widely seen as a revolution in landlord-tenant relations; it set the precedent for treating leases as contracts between landlords and tenants, a change considered to be more modern and fair. Tenants would now have the right to introduce evidence of housing code violations if they were sued for late rent, and if the living situation were found unacceptable, the tenant would not have to pay.

But in recent years, housing courts look less like the guardian against slum conditions imagined by New Deal-era advocates and far more like other municipal courts that target low-level offenders and focus disproportionately on the poor.

After visiting rent court in the 1990s, University of Maryland law professor Barbara Bezdek concluded that, beneath “the veneer of due process,” litigants “who are members of socially subordinated groups” are systematically excluded. Though rent court was originally meant to be an accessible space where tenants and landlords could speak directly to a judge without a lawyer, the reality is that the arrangement favors the landlords. Bezdek found that differences in speech, the effects of poverty and the unduly high hurdles tenants were asked to overcome to even raise a defense prevented them from being truly heard. All in all, Bezdek described the legal dynamics as “a charade.” In the two decades since, not much has changed.

A Judicial “Charade”

On a typical day in rent court, the average number of scheduled cases ranges from 800 to 1,000. Shah says the court’s “dirty little secret” is that it depends on the overwhelming majority of summoned tenants to not show up — meaning default wins for the landlord — because there’s no way judges could ever hear as many cases as they schedule. Mark Scurti, associate judge at Baltimore City’s District Court, agrees they would not be able to handle as many cases as they schedule if all tenants were to appear. “It would put a tremendous strain on our current staffing and judges,” he says.

For tenants who do show up to court, it’s not much better. “The court really operates like a giant black box. I have a friggin’ Ph.D. and I’m sitting there like, if this were me and I was actually there [for a case], I would have no idea what’s going on,” says Pasciuti. “There’s no direction, there’s nobody there to explain anything to you.” While some legal aid groups try to offer assistance, their availability is minimal, and most tenants go in without professional help. On days with full dockets, a case can easily receive less than 30 seconds of judicial review.

Rent court is one of the few courts in Maryland’s judiciary system for which no digitized records are available. Whereas all other court cases are filed online, no similar computer system has ever existed for these housing disputes; everything must be manually processed and gets filed away into a vault. Relatedly, no court records are available to determine things like the number of judgments ruled in the landlords’ favor, or how many times an individual tenant is brought to court annually. “I think those are critical numbers to know, and I’m all about watching statistics and watching trends,” says Scurti, who hopes the court will be included in a statewide electronic court filing initiative that is being rolled out over the next couple years. “Why we’ve never been electronic before, I don’t know,” he says. “I suspect it has to do with funding.”

Obtaining data on the number of evictions is similarly difficult. While the sheriff’s office tallies monthly eviction stats for rent court stakeholders to review, it does not make the data easily accessible to the public. It took several weeks for the city to agree to share with me that they had a total of 6,309 evictions in 2014. Housing advocates say the number has hovered around 7,000 evictions annually for the last 10 years. An Abell Foundation report published in 2003 found that the chances of eviction are greater if one rents in Baltimore than in comparable cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Cleveland.

Rent court is easily one of the state’s speediest judicial proceedings. Landlords can file for trial a mere one day after rent is late, no matter what the reason. In other states, like New York, landlords must serve tenants with a “rent demand” that gives them three or five days to pay overdue rent before an eviction case is started. New York tenants who do not receive these notices can raise that as a defense in court, says Jenny Laurie, executive director of Housing Court Answers. There is no similar pre-filing period required in Baltimore, leading to, what Shah describes as, “an enormous amount of unnecessary litigation.”

Such a rapid system also gives tenants little time to prepare their defenses, but from the landlord’s perspective, the process has to be quick. “On a large commercial scale [court speed] is not such an importance because they have an ability to withstand not getting rent, but when you’re not a commercial landlord and you have maybe just three, four units, or just one unit, plus a mortgage on the property, [not getting] your rent is a big deal,” says Dennis Hodge, a lawyer who has been representing landlords in the Baltimore area since the mid 1980s. “Most landlords do not want to do evictions, they prefer just to get their money,” he adds.

But when tenants are unable or unwilling to pass over that money, the courtroom’s speed comes into play again. With hundreds of cases to hear in a day, the judges have little time to hear the details of a tenant’s situation. And without professional legal assistance, tenants are generally unable to defend themselves against common chicanery like landlords tacking on additional charges veiled as rent.

Judges often ask tenants why they don’t just move if a rental is uninhabitable or too expensive. “People can’t afford to just pick up and move!” exclaims Detrese Dowridge, a 30-year-old single mother who has gone to rent court three time since May 2013. Dowridge’s Northwest Baltimore home had cracked walls and windows, scurrying mice and roaches, and a leaky ceiling. “And even if they can move,” she says, “then the person who comes in after them will still be stuck with the [same] landlord getting away with whatever.”

“There’s a lot of blaming and shaming the poor in the courtroom,” explains Shah. “I think the spirit with which the court operates is that you have to deserve your housing.”

Reforming Rent Court

Without a jury or many headline-making cases, civil courtroom proceedings have typically flown under the public’s radar. That is beginning to change. A Department of Justice report issued in the wake of police officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson singled out the Missouri municipal court for “constitutionally deficient” procedures that “undermine the court’s role as a fair and impartial judicial body.”

Now attorneys at the Public Justice Center have teamed up with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a Baltimore-based human rights organization, and Jews United for Justice (JUFJ), a local activist group, to try and change the frustrating realities of rent court. With $280,000 in grant funding from the Abell Foundation, they hope to lead a court reform initiative and promote greater awareness about housing evictions around the city.

“The bare minimum allowable for any human dignity in the rental housing system is for this court to be fixed,” says Jessica Lewis, an organizer with RTHA.

“Our members that go through rent court are just defeated,” she adds. “They feel there is no dignity. It’s just really, really dehumanizing for them.”

Pasciuti, with a team of Johns Hopkins students, has been helping the three organizations conduct surveys and analyze their quantitative data. The goal is to collect meaningful information about what actually happens in rent court. “Our theory is if the public narrative about low-income renters was articulated, presented with numbers, substantiated in a really sound way, and we got it out to the right people, then we can get to a point where there is the political will, and even maybe the business interest to fix this system,” says Shah. The groups hope to go public with a completed dataset of over 300 tenant surveys, augmented by information from the court proceedings and regulatory agencies, later this fall.

In addition to bringing tenant voices into the public discussion, the Public Justice Center also aims to launch a legal strategy, in order to get sufficient clarity about what “rent” means in a residential lease context. Shah says they are considering either a class-action lawsuit or litigating through the appeals process to investigate tricky lease clauses that landlords often use to get more money or to evict tenants.

The activists’ timing might be just right. Scurti, the Baltimore judge frustrated by the lack of good data collection in his court, says he also wants to move toward a formal evaluation of docket patterns to see how the court can operate better. “I want to understand the process and to reevaluate it,” he says. He is particularly interested in figuring out how technology might help the court function more smoothly.

Ultimately, all sides agree that the court today is a flawed and inefficient operation. “You’re not going to encounter a judge, or a landlord, or an advocate for tenants who will tell you things are going well,” says Shah. The problem, however, is that improvement means different things for everyone involved. Despite the relative speed at which these cases move, Baltimore landlords, for instance, still feel the whole legal process should be adjudicated much more quickly and with less bureaucracy. Tenant advocates, on the other hand, want increased procedural accessibility and due process.

A promising place to look may be Massachusetts, which has one of the best housing court models in the country. First established in the 1970s, housing court officials in Massachusetts have prioritized creating a system that is accessible to both landlords and tenants.

In addition to a robust legal services community, Massachusetts employs court staff to serve as mediators between landlords and tenants and help them solve disputes without going directly before a judge. According to Paul J. Burke, deputy court administrator, the majority of rental disputes are settled this way. The typical length of a mediation session is around 30 minutes, which can provide a greater sense of dignity than Baltimore’s hasty proceedings. In some cases, mediations can even last for several hours.

Ultimately it comes down to fairness. “From day one back in the early ’70s, it was anticipated that many people would be self-represented, would perhaps be lower-income, and perhaps not have the highest level of educational training,” says Burke. “The policies, the processes and the forms in our courts have always been set up with that in mind.”

Details Emerge for Baltimore’s Plan to Privatize Public Housing

Originally published in The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on September 9th, 2015.
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A little over a year ago I reported on the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD)—the federal government’s new plan to preserve public housing by turning units over to the control of private developers. Instead of Congress supporting public housing through direct subsidies to local housing authorities—a responsibility which they’ve persistently shirked for decades—RAD would enable private companies to rehab and manage public housing units in exchange for tax credits and subsidies. Developers would have to keep rents low, and their contracts would continually renew to prevent companies from turning affordable units into market-rate rentals.

Baltimore residents learned last summer that their city would be converting 40 percent of its public housing stock through RAD, but up until this weekend little was known about how exactly developers would be subsidized. On Saturday, Sun journalist Luke Broadwater shed some light, reporting that the city will issue tax breaks worth millions of dollars, and will sell its public housing complexes “for far less than their state-assessed value.” The nearly $100 million collected from the sales will be invested back into the city’s remaining public housing stock.

Through public record requests, Broadwater found that ten developers will be excused from paying $1.7 million in local taxes per year for at least the next 20 years. In addition to city tax breaks, each developer who buys a public housing complex will also receive millions of dollars from the federal government, through federal tax credits and “developer fees.”

Baltimore is one of the first cities to finalize its deals under RAD, and community members have mixed feelings about how officials pushed forward with the program. Housing advocates, tenants, and union workers have led protests, raising concerns of public housing loss, resident displacement, and middle-class job cuts. In general, the city has not been forthcoming with concrete details to assuage anxieties.

As Broadwater reports, Baltimore’s Board of Estimates approved the tax breaks—“without details publicly revealed or debated” in April by a 4-1 vote. Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, controls three of the five board seats. The city comptroller and the city council president hold the other two.

The city council president, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, voted against the tax breaks, citing his general opposition to privatizing public housing. He also worried about the possibility of losing hundreds of public sector union jobs through RAD conversions, like maintenance workers and building monitors.

Carl Stokes, a local councilman, said he’s supportive of the deal because at least the incentives will support low-income people living in buildings that desperately need maintenance and repair. Baltimore has a history of awarding tax breaks to build flashy waterfront developments and tourist attractions.

Nationally, HUD Secretary Julian Castro has called RAD “the answer” to housing issues in many struggling communities. While Congress has so far approved just 185,000 public housing units to be transferred to the control of public developers—out of a total of 1.2 million units—public housing authorities, real estate companies, and other stakeholders have been lobbying Congress to lift the program’s cap. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters sent a letter to President Obama in December urging him to directly fund public housing rather than depend on private developers to save the units. “Put simply,” she said, “if the price of accessing private capital is to put public ownership at risk, then that price is too high.”

As Baltimore’s situation suggests, it might be cheaper for Congress to just increase direct funding for public housing, rather than rely on a costly mix of tax breaks, subsidies, and developer fees. Yet such a move is doubtful to happen any time soon. But while RAD appears to be the most likely way officials aim to preserve crumbling units in the near future, even the most optimistic experts cannot guarantee that it will protect the nation’s public housing units over the long-term.