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Affordable housing still elusive

There’s demand for affordable housing in Baltimore — but finding the people to build it is difficult.


The Baltimore skyline is visible in the background in this view from the West Baltimore community of Uplands. The $238 million redevelopment occupies 63 acres off Edmondson Avenue near the Baltimore County line, and Pennrose Properties, one of the developers, says it will include rentals, subsidized units and houses for sale at market rate. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Experts say that’s partly because federal support is declining for this segment of the market, which covers a broad spectrum of below-market-rate developments, from housing for teachers, police and firefighters to government-subsidized housing for the homeless. But they also say it’s hard to find the expertise to put together the funding to make it possible.

Chickie Grayson is president and CEO of Enterprise Homes, a Baltimore-based developer dedicated to providing housing for low- and moderate-income people. From her perspective, the issue facing Baltimore isn’t so much a matter of supply but the condition of what’s available.

“There’s a lot of quote unquote affordable housing,” Grayson said. “But there’s not a lot of quality affordable housing,”

Adam Schneider, of Health Care for the Homeless, a local nonprofit founded in 1985, said during a news conference last week that the need for more affordable housing in Baltimore is glaring. The news conference was called after the federal government ordered Baltimore to pay back $3.7 million from a grant designed to house homeless residents after questioning how the money was spent.

“The first issue is the lack of affordable housing that we have, and the fact that over the last three and a half decades federal funding for affordable housing has been diminished by 60 percent,” Schneider charged.

Grayson agreed that declining support from Washington has made developing affordable housing more challenging, but praised the job Maryland has done to leverage financing.

“You can’t [build] something if you don’t have the resources to do it,” she said.

Ivy Dench-Carter, of Pennrose Properties, which develops multifamily and mixed-use developments for market-rate and mixed-income communities, cast doubt on whether developers would ever be able to meet the demand in Baltimore for affordable housing, but praised the city’s current administration for working with developers to try to meet the need.

“In order to make affordable housing work you need certain subsidies, you need certain soft loans, and I think the city does a good job with their allocation from the feds and making sure affordable housing is developed in the city,” Dench-Carter said.

Dench-Carter said there are substantial obstacles to getting builders who traditionally develop market-rate housing to enter the affordable-housing market.

“I think it is difficult for builders who have not done an affordable housing deal to get into this arena, given the number of financing resources they have to deal with and all of the regulatory requirements that we deal with. But as a whole I think if we could get additional funding levels back to where they were a number of years ago from the federal government we could produce a lot more affordable housing in this region,” Dench-Carter said.

Donald Manekin, of Seawall Development Co., which has been focusing on workforce housing in the Remington neighborhood, said he feels there’s a very strong demand for workforce housing in Baltimore because younger residents want a more urban lifestyle.

“People are tired of driving beltways, and so I think there’s a pretty strong market for this generation of young people … who want to live in cities and want to feel like they’re part of communities,” Manekin said.

Manekin said Seawall entered the affordable-housing market because his company is less profit-driven than others, and because of a desire to build up a community it had just invested in after it completed its mixed-use Miller’s Court development at 26th and Howard streets.

“When we did Miller’s Court in 2007, we wanted to be neighbors and not guests in the community,” he said. “We want to find ways that real estate can enhance the value of communities in a holistic sense.”

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that the city has expanded affordable housing in the city through partnering with the state and using tax credits and incentives to boost investment in affordable housing.

“If you follow the ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings that we’ve done, my administration has partnered on several [developments] and we will continue to provide that type of support that creates the economic incentive for investors to provide quality affordable housing in this city,” Rawlings-Blake said.

According to figures from Baltimore Housing — the umbrella agency for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the Department of Housing and Community Development — there are currently 10,311 families in public housing, which means the dwellings are 95 percent occupied. In addition, 15,300 people receive Housing Choice vouchers.

A variety of programs including the Vacants to Value Homeownership Program and the CDBG Homeownership Program gave assistance to 572 families to purchase a home in the city. More than 50 percent of those helped by the city’s Office of Homeownership had incomes below 80 percent of the area median income.

Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano acknowledged there is a gap between supply and demand for affordable housing in the city. But he said Baltimore Housing is working to improve the availability of nonmarket-rate housing. He touted programs such as Vacants to Value and said there will be a major announcement in the next three weeks regarding several hundred million dollars of investment in affordable housing.

“We’ve got a comprehensive set of programs and initiatives and we’re trying to be as resourceful as we can in putting together many, many sources of funds,” Graziano said. “Private investment is critical in this as well — but with affordable housing you’re never going to make it on private investment alone.”

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