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  May 15, 2017

Tired of Tax Breaks for Wealthy Developers, Baltimore Activists Offer Affordable Housing Solution

A broad coalition of Baltimore housing advocacy groups are proposing a dedicated trust fund managed by community members to finance fixing vacant homes and building more affordable housing by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
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CITIZEN: I'm here supporting the 2020 vision because I don't believe governments make cities run, towns run. I believe people do.

STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Giving away tax breaks to developers has been easy in this city, but now advocates for affordable housing are asking for a different approach. It's not hard to find examples of how generous Baltimore has been to wealthy developers in the past. You just have to tour the city's mostly white neighborhoods, where evidence abounds of pricey deals that have wrought gleaming skyscrapers and luxurious housing all built with tax payer help. In fact, since 2013 the city has bestowed nearly 700 million dollars in tax breaks to two projects alone. Port Covington, owned by Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank, and Harbor Point, built and developed by Towson resident Michael Batty.

Meanwhile, a recent investigative piece in the Baltimore sun recounted how low income tenants have little recourse to fight landlords, who offer sub par homes filled with lead. Which is why housing advocates gathered this past week and the city's war memorial to propose a solution. They say start restoring equity and affordability to the city's housing stock.

FATHER TY HOLLINGER: So the basic idea is to have our government, our public sector set aside 20 million dollars a year for the demolition of vacant houses and properties, and then another 20 million dollars to put new construction back that could be rehabbing or fixing up homes. It could also be creating community garden space, it could be providing any other kind of development.

STEPHEN JANIS: The plan augments a just passed affordable housing ballet initiative by adding 40 million in revolving bond funds to restore vacant housing and build more affordable dwellings long ignored. It's a two pronged approach united by a single over arching philosophy. Community control.

FATHER TY HOLLINGER: And we're also looking at having that be a community controlled process where communities can really begin to have a say and be really in a sense the developers of their own community. For too long, as city we've given hundreds of millions of dollars, probably billions of dollars by now to private developers, and all the development has happened only around the inner harbor and very tiny, highly segregated places of our city.

STEPHEN JANIS: Among the attendees was Mayor Catherine Pugh, who gave a lengthy speech on a variety of issues, and appeared to endorse the plan.

MAYOR CATHERINE PUGH: We are committed to your vision. We are committed to providing housing for the people in our city. We are committed to getting people up off of our streets and creating housing for them. And we're committed to making our public housing what it should be for every citizen who ends up in public housing and requires that to be their home.

STEPHEN JANIS: But rom compelling were the testimonies from residents victimized by a city where slum lords reign, and banks regularly engage in predatory lending.

JOANNE RODRIGUEZ: So I lost my home, I'm not out of my home. I moved out April 23rd of this month. I feel that this company and other companies like it are taking advantage of maybe people who are not so savvy with their mortgages. Not understanding what the process is. I also feel that the city is not compliant, or the state is not compliant with looking at statutes that regulate these hedge fund or loan mortgage brokers. It's a shame that we have so many vacant lots in the city that deplete the tax base of the city, which means people don't want to invest. You don't have home owners anymore who really are interested in making this a really wonderful community that I know it could be.

STEPHEN JANIS: For the people who gathered to make the case for a new fund, the message was clear. Like wealthy developers, it's time to give the people who live here a break too.

PROTESTOR: The pain I feel isn't the brain, the pain I feel is what happened to us. What happened to our neighborhoods.

STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis, Taya Graham, and Cameron Granadino reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.



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