A Look Inside Dixon's 10 Year Plan, How Baltimore's Mayor Plans to End Homelessness

A Look Inside Dixon's 10 Year Plan, How Baltimore's Mayor Plans to End Homelessness

Mayor Sheila Dixon published The Journey Home: Baltimore City’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness on January 17, 2008. It appeared a few months after Joan Jacobson of the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore-based non-profit grant-making organization, produced her The Dismantling of Baltimore’s Public Housing (Sept. 2007). Mayor Dixon signed her name on The Journey Home, but it is, in fact, the product of an 80-person working group that included representatives of non-governmental organizations in Baltimore. The mayor acknowledges the support of the Abell Foundation, among other bodies, in financing the plan. Yet, curiously, the plan mentions neither The Dismantling of Baltimore’s Public Housing nor its author. The mayor’s plan makes recommendations for affordable housing, comprehensive health care, income and employment, and preventive and emergency services, whereas the Abell Foundation’s report focuses on trends in the City’s provision of public housing and the politics surrounding it. Both papers, although different in scope, identify some of the same problems, and one would expect the latter to be relevant to the former. I compare the two papers’ recommendations on housing here, and I suggest that while the mayor’s plan addresses some important issues and offers welcome measures to mitigate the plight of the homeless, it does not provide sufficient economic context for a proper understanding of the causes of homelessness. For essentially the same reason, it also offers somewhat fanciful prospects for the availability of affordable housing in Baltimore in the near future, and does not allay worries that the City’s housing policy will remain hidden from public scrutiny. The Mayor’s Plan in Comparison with the Abell Foundation’s Report The Journey Home claims to be a 10-year plan for “ending, not just managing, homelessness” that recognizes that “fundamentally, contemporary homelessness is a symptom of poverty”. Or, more modestly, and with qualifications (on the same pages), it aims to “provide concrete recommendations to ensure that homelessness will be rare and brief occurrence for Baltimore City residents within ten years”, and acknowledges the “need to resolve rather than manage the realities of homelessness” (p. 10 - 11, emphasis original). Any reference to cause and effect, dynamics, or instigation of homelessness is notably absent from the plan, outside the mayor’s cover letter and the identification of lack of affordable housing, lack of access to health care, inadequate income, and poorly coordinated public services in its Introduction. In fact, while declaring that poverty is an underlying problem (or “reality”), it begs the question of the causes of poverty. The plan makes recommendations for “alternative housing,” increase in rent subsidies, preservation and refurbishment of “low-income” housing, and provision of incentives to developers to supply such affordable housing (pp. 13–22). It sets “benchmarks” (goals) for attaining these objectives in the first year of implementation, including drawing up specific plans, selection of sites for 15 (of 25) “permanent supportive housing projects,” distribution of Section 8 Housing Choices rent supplement vouchers to disabled persons who are “chronically homeless,” and introduction of housing anti-discrimination legislation at the City or State level. The measures probably most welcome to advocates for the homeless are the expansion of Baltimore’s Housing First program to 500 housing units and the expansion of the Section 8 voucher program to 1,350 non-elderly persons with disabilities who are on the waiting list of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC). The latter brings the HABC further into compliance with the federal anti-discriminatory Bailey Consent Decree of 2005. Sometimes cited as 1,850 total new housing opportunities, this number goes a long way toward providing for the average of 3,000 persons the City registers as homeless on a given day, only 1,000 of whom fit the confusing federal definition of “chronically homeless”. This term refers to persons who have been homeless for over a year or have had at least four “episodes of homelessness” in three years. However, these figures are misleading in two respects. Firstly, they do not include persons who are turned away from City’s shelters (contrary to what the mayor’s plan implies on p. 8), and secondly, they do not comprise the more accurately described “chronically” homeless, who may be able continuously to find paid or unpaid, legal or illegal temporary shelter—but who have no guarantee of a home at any time. The total number of homeless, defined in this way, may be as much as ten times greater than the City’s census (see “Homelessness in Baltimore” in this issue). The mayor’s plan accords to a considerable extent with the Abell Foundation’s recommendation that Section 8 vouchers be made more available in the city and that bills requiring landlords to accept them be introduced into the local or state legislature. However, the Abell report points out that Baltimore City has no one-for-one replacement policy for units of public housing demolished (a policy the federal government abolished in the 1990s). Indeed, the Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano is quoted saying that the City is “not building any new public housing projects” (Dismantling, p. 22), and discussion of the state of Baltimore’s public housing is absent from the City’s Comprehensive Master Plan of 2006. Furthermore, the city will see a net loss of 2,400 units of public housing from 2007 to 2008. Yet, according to the Abell Foundation, the City has not spent $18.5 million the federal government awarded to it to replace 1,000 units lost with the demolition of Hollander Ridge in East Baltimore, Baltimore also has $26 million in reserve, which it can spend on operating costs and capital improvements (ibid., p. 2). The latter could be reallocated to pay for court-ordered retrofitting of public housing for persons with disabilities. Despite all the inaction on public housing and the decrease in stock, the City continues to remove persons from public housing scheduled for demolition, without seeking the approval of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development—even though through their negligence, they are forgoing the opportunity to supply relocated tenants with Section 8 vouchers (p. 35). What further frustrates anyone trying to insure adequate and sufficient public housing is the opacity to public scrutiny of the HABC’s processes and drafting of the City’s housing policies. The Abell Foundation documents this shortcoming throughout its report. It consists no accurate figures for inhabited public housing stock, a public hearing notification process that does not meet federal standards, and refusal to release a study, commissioned at the cost of $500,000, which reportedly calls for greatly expanding Baltimore’s “low-income” and “middle-income” housing. Except for a nod to “public, private, and community participation” at a few points, the mayor’s plan makes no mention of greater transparency. Homeless “participation”, of course, means simply polling their express needs. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that neglect of housing issues coupled with bureaucratic opacity is less accident than design. Criticism of the Premises of the Mayor’s Plan One of the four chapters of the mayor’s The Journey Home is devoted to “comprehensive health care” (pp. 23–31), meaning disease prevention and therapy that provides for those recently released from prison and those unable to pay for treatment, including persons suffering from drug addiction and mental illness. The plan rightly pursues the ramifications of the provision of health care for housing the homeless. This too is welcome news, and such advocacy groups as Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) participated in the working group behind the mayor’s plan. HCH has emphasized the vicious cycle of poverty, homelessness, and disease that persons can quickly fall into when they are unable to attain the means necessary to reproduce socially viable and physiologically healthy daily life. No one should doubt the importance of this observation. However, as with the focus on the so called “chronically” homeless, bracketing the question of the relationship of health to poverty and homelessness as the mayor has, encourages discussion of homelessness only in terms of “social exclusion” (to use a favorite term of Britain’s “New” Labor party), rather than in terms of the economic conditions that drive people to material, physical, and emotional collapse. The plan therefore focuses on bringing the homeless into some assumed social mainstream. To be fair, many of the mayor’s recommendations are progressive, such as extending drug treatment on demand, and call for whatever economic investment nationwide universal health insurance would entail. Still, when it comes to the broader topic of the economic prospects of the homeless, the plan again frames the issue in terms of reforming laws and institutions that exclude people from waged work, thereby increasing economic “opportunities” (pp. 32–43), instead of addressing present economic trends and crises. Thus the mayor’s stated goal is, “By 2018, all Baltimore workers will earn a wage sufficient to afford housing; funding of public benefits will be sufficient to prevent the homelessness of recipients.” Its strategies for attaining this goal in 10 years are lowering barriers to employment (such as criminal records), augmenting job training opportunities, increasing benefit payments, and working directly with employers in Baltimore (perhaps offering financial incentives) to move persons from homelessness services into paid employment. A study by the Urban Institute, entitled Low-income Rental Housing and published in 2005—which the mayor’s plan cites—shows that real income in Baltimore dropped nearly 10 percent between 1990 and 2000, while the median rent increased from $400 per month in 1990 to $618 in 1998 (to $750 ten years later), with the rents in the highest-price category growing most quickly. In addition, the Abell Foundation’s report of 2007 points out that between 1999 and 2004, the percentage of Baltimoreans living below the federal poverty line has gradually increased—to nearly one third of the city’s population. Yet when The Journey Home arrives at provision of new “affordable” housing, particularly for the homeless, it recommends offering tax credits to developers and amending the City’s zoning code to accommodate housing for the homeless. Even if the previous 10 years’ trends are simply repeated, these measures hardly guarantee affordable housing (in a meaningful way) for Baltimoreans in general. Such measures as controlling rent so that it does not rise more quickly than wages are evidently outside the scope of serious discourse in City Hall, and this restriction of policy is surely no oversight. Trends in “Public” Housing One matter the Abell Foundation’s report makes amply clear is how the City has deliberately let its public housing stock deteriorate, thereby not only helping to rationalize the demolition of unoccupied units but also of inhabited units, which are invariably affected by worsening physical conditions and the use of abandoned homes for drug consumption and anti-social activity. At the same time that the City is neither spending money to keep existing stock up nor replacing demolished stock, it is allowing private developers to purchase real estate upon which city-owned housing stands or once stood, or it is joining in “public–private partnerships” (PPPs), such as East Baltimore Development, Inc., to redevelop areas historically replete with public or low-income housing of one kind or another. PPPs are presented to the public as the only efficient way to raise enough capital to remedy a deteriorating situation—that is, after business interests have pressured local, state, and federal authorities to divest of subsidizing public housing, and the damage is done. In fact, “PPP” is usually a euphemism not only for allowing an unaccountable private sector to take charge of the provision of affordable housing for the City but also for giving away land and infrastructure held by the City in public trust and bought with taxpayers’ money. The Indypendent Reader covered this trend in Baltimore in its very first issue (summer 2006, “Production of Space / Destruction of Place”; see esp. “The creation of the ghetto”). There the City’s complicity with the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital and with Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse was singled out for attention, though these are not the City’s only partners. This trend in “urban renewal” is not limited to Baltimore. The planned obsolescence of public properties—even exploitation of disaster to seize development opportunities—combined with superficial policies offering private capital as the sole solution for renovation or reinvention of services, has been carefully documented in the United States in such works as Noami Klein’s recent The Shock Doctrine (2007) and in the United Kingdom in George Monbiot’s Captive State (2000). Monbiot’s book, in particular, shows how insidious this plan can be, when a traditionally “leftwing,” social welfare-oriented political party presents it as the only solution. The Journey Home was written just as the US economy fell into a recession spurred in large part by the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis (see “Baltimore’s response to the national credit crisis,” this issue). Under such conditions, can the mayor or City Hall end homelessness in Baltimore in 10 years? Unlikely, if it does not repair and replace completely its public housing stock; unlikely, if it refuses more than token involvement of its public constituency in housing policy decision making; unlikely, if it does not take positive measures to make sure that rents do not outpace incomes; unlikely, if it continues to give money, infrastructure, and land away to private developers; unlikely, if it doesn’t join its own progressive measures with those of other municipal governments, as well as the state and federal government. Unlikely, unless the residents of Baltimore protest loudly against oversights, lapses, giveaways, and policies that favor those who already own homes and more. (I’m not sure how this sentence is supposed to end. I added “own” because there was a missing verb.)—np Bibliography Anderson, Lynn (2008) End to homelessness: the City presents a 10-year plan to address a chronic problem, The Baltimore Sun, on line edition, 18 January 2008. Dixon, Sheila (2008) The Journey Home: Baltimore City’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, Baltimore Homeless Services, Baltimore City, January 2008. Jacobson, Joan (2007) The Dismantling of Baltimore’s Public Housing: Housing Authority’s Cutting 2,400 Homes for the Poor from its Depleted Inventory, a 15-year Trend Shows a Decrease of 42 Percent in Occupied Units (rev. ed.). Baltimore, Maryland, The Abell Foundation. Klein, Naomi (2007) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company/Metropolitan Books. (See especially Chapter 20 “Disaster apartheid.”) Monbiot, George (2000) Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain. London/New York: MacMillan. (See especially Chapter 3 “Breaking point—the smashing of Southampton.”) Newman, Sarah J. (2005) Low-end Rental Housing: The Forgotten Story in Baltimore’s Housing Boom. Washington, DC, The Urban Institute.