The Housing Authority and advocates for the homeless face off over housing preferences

by Paul Cané
and Alice Cherbonnier

It's harder to get public housing in Baltimore City. Or maybe it's easier. It depends on who you ask. Two things are certain: the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) has changed its policy regarding who gets public housing, and advocates for the poor and the homeless are uneasy about it.
The changes seem relatively simple. On June 10, Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson announced that on July 1 HABC would be dropping all federal preferences with regards to applicants for public housing in the city. Preferences thereafter would be given to applicants based solely on their residency status and the date of their application. "We did this with the encouragement of HUD," said Zack Germroth, HCD spokesman, explaining that the preferences were considered outmoded by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. "This change makes public housing a totally different product than it's ever been."
While HABC sees the move as a way to bring a more stable class of tenant to public housing, the advocacy community views the changes as a step toward restricting access to public housing for citizens HABC seems to consider a bad investment-namely the homeless, the disabled, and the poorest of the city's poor.
Several researchers and city administrators (including David Rusk, author of Baltimore Unbound) cite the dense concentration of the intensely poor as a major component of many of urban America's ills. Few homeless advocates dispute the wisdom of such a mix, but they question the manner in which HABC seeks to achieve it.
Having a broader economic mix in the city's 18,000 public housing units will provide it with needed additional operating income, because rents are pegged to residents' income.
"We're looking at the housing issue as a continuum of housing," said Germroth. "That includes homeless shelters providing beds, a roof, and food, to transitional housing, then to traditional public housing, and on to a new step up-Section 8. Then there will be various opportunities leading to home ownership, maybe even allowing Section 8 allotments to be applied to mortgage payments."
This "continuum of housing care" will involve counseling and readiness evaluation at each step. He explained that the discarded federal preferences used to load public housing "with applicants right off the street, without housekeeping skills."
The new plan "makes public housing a totally different product than it's ever been," said Germroth. "Nobody else [in other cities] is doing this that we know of. But this is not going to happen overnight. Those in public housing right now will have a home unless they engage in a criminal activity."
Under the new continuum rules, before a shelter resident moves up into transitional housing, he or she may be obligated to show participation in a drug or alcohol rehabilitation program. Some advocates for the poor view such requirements as a way to prohibit certain types of people from obtaining public housing in the city.
"Social engineering. Pure and simple," says Brendan Walsh of Viva House, a homeless support facility near Union Square. "They're saying, `If we don't like your lifestyle, you're out.' "
Other advocates are equally fervent. The Homeless Persons Representation Project and Health Care for the Homeless have collaborated on a report given to the HABC task force that critiques such HABC criteria under consideration as the establishment of minimum rents, requiring applicants to attend Tenant Readiness Programs, "Clean and Sober" provisions, and the establishment of a work requirement so as to create a public housing community that will be composed of 70% working people and 30% non-working people.
The advocates point out that the ratio of homeless households to transitional housing slots is only about 25 to 1. If a stint at transitional housing is a requirement for moving up to public housing, this limited availability will create a significant-some would say intentional-bottleneck. They suggest that the continuum of housing care should be considered a set of flexible alternatives to help alleviate homelessness, not a mechanism to exclude certain people from the housing they need.
Germroth believes these fears are based on mere "possibilities". "This all will play out in three to five years," he says. "Within that time frame, we'll be okay."
A further concern for HABC may be possible legal challenges to the new program. Diane Pasternak of the Homeless Persons Representation Project points out that many homeless and very poor persons are disabled, physically or mentally. By federal law, she notes, these persons are a protected class. By denying "reasonable accommodation" for the disabled, she believes, HABC is in violation of federal law.
Those who work with the homeless are quick to provide horror stories. Stories of men denied slots in public housing because of delays in locating 20-year-old arrest reports. Or of the woman who lost her "working" preference because she was attending school when her ex-husband stopped sending child support.
Lauren Siegel of Health Care for the Homeless points out that in 1996 HUD established a "hardship exemption clause" which would allow HABC to waive certain restrictions in cases like the two above. Commissioner Henson has been quiet about hardship exemptions, and drafts of proposed new policies are unclear about how this exemption would be applied after new preferences are in place.
HABC and residents of public housing have their own horror stories to tell, of a Housing Authority critically short of operating funds because of unpaid rents, of desperate needs going unmet because they just weren't desperate enough.
Whether one sees the restructuring of the city's public housing policies as social engineering or as a bold move to alter the course of a failing system depends largely on what one sees as the purpose of publicly subsidized housing. Is it a program to house the poorest of the poor? Or is it, as Commissioner Henson seems to believe, a piece of the city's infrastructure that should be administered in a way that brings more income to the city?
There seems to be very little middle ground in this debate. As federal funding dries up and welfare reform begins to take effect, the controversy will likely intensify. Both groups understand the need for closer coordination between local foundations, social service providers, and other private charities and HABC. Lauren Siegel believes this would be helpful to both HABC, which has lost much of its staff due to budget cutbacks, and to case workers dealing with individuals seeking housing. "A lot of our clients wouldn't fall through the cracks if these groups talked with each other," she says.
Similarly both camps must work with residential and commercial developers to make more units of low-income housing available. This "linkage" policy involves developers setting aside a percentage of their projects for lower income residents, and has met with success in many urban areas around the country.
The federal government gave a clear sign that HABC is moving in the right direction when it was announced on July 22 that Baltimore City will receive full funding under its consolidated housing plan. This means $41,114,000 will be granted to be used in four major categories of community and economic development. The Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program will receive $29,721,000 to be shared with over 100 community and nonprofit groups working on housing-related issues. the HOME program will get $7,017,000 to produce and rehabilitate homes for low-income residents. The Emergency Shelter Grant Program will receive $780,000 to operate the city's homeless shelters; and the Housing for Persons with AIDS program will receive $3,596,000.
HUD also announced that Baltimore City has received the Blue Ribbon Practices in Community Development Award for its "innovative use of housing and community development funds" in producing low-income housing for sale or rent.

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This story was published on August 6, 1997.