Housing Policies Still Pin Poor in Baltimore, but Some Escape to Suburbs

Doug Donovan, Baltimore Sun, December 15, 2015

Danielle Hill has a secret, one she shares with dozens of other residents of Baltimore public housing. It goes like this: They don’t live in the city.

Instead, they live in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, in houses purchased by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. Thousands more have moved to the counties with special rent subsidies in a companion program.

Hill’s family is among nearly 10,000 black women and children who have moved into overwhelmingly white, prosperous suburbs through a court-ordered relocation program designed to combat the intense inner-city segregation and poverty forged by decades of discrimination.

That relocation program–one of the nation’s largest–has been discreetly rolled out to avoid the political and community opposition that routinely arises to defeat proposals for building subsidized housing in Baltimore’s suburbs. Hill’s Cockeysville townhouse, for example, was purchased by the city through a nonprofit organization based in the suburbs, with little notice to elected Baltimore County officials or the public.

“We did it very much under the radar,” Amy Wilkinson, fair housing director for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, said of the home purchases. “We met very early on with the county executives. They understood we had to do it. Their request was to make sure [the homes] are really scattered and make sure we do it quietly.”

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While local officials in the Baltimore area–one of the most segregated in the nation–have ramped up collaborative efforts to meet federal fair-housing standards, they concede that more needs to be done to provide more affordable homes in prosperous neighborhoods. The need is obvious: More than 100,000 people are on waiting lists for subsidized housing in the region, with Baltimore bearing the biggest burden. Most counties have not taken two steps that advocates say are essential: requiring developers to set aside housing for low-income tenants and prohibiting landlords from refusing to accept tenants with federal rent subsidies.

There are two main components to Baltimore’s “mobility” campaign, which aims to relocate public housing residents to better neighborhoods. Nearly 3,100 participating families, headed almost entirely by single black mothers, have relocated with special subsidies that are designed for high suburban rents; about 1,300 other families will join them over the next three years. Nearly 50 families, including Hill’s, have moved into houses owned by the city housing authority in prosperous county communities; 110 more will soon move to houses in strong city neighborhoods.

Participants in the mobility program receive counseling and other advice on issues ranging from household budgeting to clothing. And despite the large number of families who have moved, the fears most commonly expressed by opponents–rising crime, plummeting property values–have not materialized, research shows.

“Most people don’t even know we’re [in the suburbs],” said Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, which helped establish the mobility program after winning a landmark federal fair-housing lawsuit in Baltimore known as Thompson v. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A judge ruled that HUD had violated federal law by not taking a regional approach to desegregating public housing. “We’re not going to advertise it. The most intense opposition comes when a project is proposed. When it’s built and on the ground, you almost never have opposition.”

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