This past Wednesday, I attended a forum on affordable housing in Howard County sponsored by the Association for Community Services. It ended up being a strange event. I left with the feeling that everyone in the room understood something but no one was willing to say it: there are no quick-fixes, no minor adjustments, no improvements in programs or staff that will help people with low incomes find housing in Howard County. The only thing that will help is increasing the supply of affordable housing.
So, is there an immediate, short-term way to increase the amount of affordable housing in the county with the third-highest median income in the United States? Obviously! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I love going to ACS events. Human service professionals and activists from all over the county attend so the questions are always smart. Even the announcements are interesting. Wednesday’s forum started off well. A panel of seven experts presented summaries of the work being done in our county to provide or maintain housing for four vulnerable groups: the elderly, those who are disabled, those who struggle with mental illness and those who have low or very low incomes. Everyone said the same thing—there is a huge gap between the amount of appropriate, affordable housing that is available and the amount that is needed by Howard County residents.
I have a feeling everyone in the room already knew that.
Then came the weird part. We broke up into four groups, each focused on one of the “housing vulnerable” populations we had discussed. Our instructions: create a list of immediate, workable solutions to the challenges faced by low-income people who are looking for affordable housing in our county. Ready, set, go.
A number of people in the group spoke up. Some complained more about the problems, others attempted to answer the question and suggested solutions. Someone thought it might be good to support landlords who may be willing to rent to low-income tenants if they had more encouragement (turns out that has already started happening through the County’s Coordinated System of Homeless Services). Someone thought it would be good to have early morning and evening hours at the Laurel Multiservice Center (done already).
The longer the conversation went on, the more frustrated I got. There was a comment about how the county should provide bigger incentives to developers who might be enticed to build affordable housing, but comments about housing construction were generally redirected. “Remember: we’re looking for short term solutions!”
I am certainly an amateur in this area, but in my very limited experience, this county has its act together when it comes to the coordination and provision of services to low-income people in need of permanent housing. The Plan to End Homelessness, adopted in 2010, got the gears in motion, and now it is easy to get connected to services through the Coordinated System of Homeless Services. The Laurel Multiservice Center has helped different agencies work together seamlessly. And the people? Every single caseworker we’ve encountered through our work with Help End Homelessness has been knowledgeable, resourceful and compassionate. These things are not the problem.
The problem is that there are way too few units of affordable housing even to house the people who already live here, say nothing of what we would need if we housed all the low-wage workers who are employed here.
In order to increase the supply of affordable housing, we either need (1) more housing that is available for below-market rent or (2) more rent subsidies. If we are looking for the federal or state government to provide these things, we are going to be waiting a long time. If we are hoping private developers will, by their own volition, provide these things, we will be waiting even longer.
So is it possible that our county government will partner with private developers to fund the creation of new, affordable units? Possible. Will the Howard County Housing Department build more affordable units? Yes, but not without a fight. These are the real, long-term solutions to the problem, but in order for them to happen, we need to build political will that currently does not exist.
Here’s what I think everyone who cares about this issue should do in the short term:
- Together with others or individually, subsidize someone’s housing. I know that sounds crazy, but it really isn’t impossible. My congregation banded together with a few others, pooled our resources and bought a condo that we are now renting to a formerly homeless family. We created a non-profit that shelters us individually from liability, and we would be happy to add another house, or another dozen, to our list of properties. You and your friends or congregation or civic group or company could select and support a tenant for the home you buy, or we could do that for you.
Or you could rent out a property you personally own at below-market rates.
Or you (and your friends, your congregation, your civic group, your company) could subsidize someone’s rent for a year or two. Many low-wage workers only need $300 or $400 a month to be able to afford stable housing.
I know, I know. This is not a systemic solution to a systemic problem. But it is an immediate solution to the sense of despair that comes when we do nothing at all to solve a problem that is obvious to everyone. And it results in more people having personal involvement with the problem that leads into short term action #2…
- Build political will. ACS is made up of service providers and administrators, not lobbyists or politicians. But if we are going to ever more forward on this issue, the people who understand the problem are going to have to speak up at meetings and hearings, write letters to the paper, talk to their friends and neighbors personally advocating for more affordable housing. And some of those people are going to have to run for political office so that they can vote to appropriate money and make policy that will lead to the long-term solutions this county deserves.