Health news Health & Medical News Housing woes plague city's low-income residents

Story Photo: Housing woes plague city's low-income residents
Housing woes plague city's low-income residents

Amira Williams barely survived a deadly fire three years ago that burned her family's home and 95 percent of her body. Now, the young girl faces a new tragedy.

The 7-year-old will be moving out of her North Broadway home between Christmas and New Year's, but her mother, Chrissy Thomas, doesn't know where the family of four will go.

Baltimore housing records show that Thomas' rental has at least 26 code violations, including rodent and mold problems and peeling paint, which could be a lead-poisoning hazard. After failed attempts to get the problems fixed, she says the home isn't safe for the disabled girl and her two young siblings.

Like thousands of Baltimoreans, they can't find a decent affordable home without aid which the city once pledged but now appears limited. The family's plight illustrates the increasing strain on housing for the city's low-income residents.

"Just about everyone in my house died except for me and my daughter in that fire," Thomas said of the Cecil Avenue blaze that left eight people dead. "And there's nothing they can do to help me."

Housing advocates say the city has a dearth of safe, affordable housing for its many needy residents. Housing officials say they are enforcing violations and providing aid but have limited resources.

The city spent $255 million in federal aid in fiscal 2010 on 13,400 public housing units and thousands of Section 8 vouchers for private rentals. The combined waiting list has about 26,000 names, though the voucher list has been closed for years. Even exceptions made for emergencies such as fires have ground to a halt, said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.
The city has used federal dollars to add to the housing stock, providing assistance to more than 24,400 households this fiscal year, up about 3,500 from five years ago. But Graziano said the lagging economy and looming cuts in Washington threaten that progress.

"Frankly, the prospects going forward in the new Congress are very scary," he said. "We've heard the new leadership talk of cuts of 21 percent or even 25 percent in domestic discretionary spending."

Baltimore has more than its share of need. The poverty rate for families in the city is more than 16 percent, more than double the national average, according to the Census Bureau's most recent data.

A worker must earn $23.13 an hour to afford a market-rate two-bedroom unit in the Baltimore-Towson area without spending more than 30 percent of his income, the accepted affordability standard, according to a report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group.

That's more than the national rate of $18.44 an hour. Yet the average U.S. renter earns about $14.44.

Further, there are two low-income renters for every affordable housing unit in the city, and more than a third of the rental stock in the city doesn't meet basic housing codes, according to a report by Sandra Newman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

For the poor or those who are living near thepoverty level, "rent needs to be very low," she said. "So there is a lot of doubling up, a lot of living in housing that falls well below code."

That's what happened to Thomas' family. At least 13 people in her extended family were in the Cecil Avenue house three years ago, fire officials said. The Fire Department suspected that a cigarette started the fire, one of the worst in Baltimore history. Among the dead were Thomas' mother and brothers.

Thomas tossed one daughter out of a second-story window to safety but fell before rescuing Amira. Her doctors say the little girl defied death many times during her year and a half at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where she had more than 30 surgeries. She bears many scars but was able to begin public school this year.

Thomas, who also was burned, thought the blaze and her daughter's disability might qualify her for housing. At the time, the city was adding victims of fires to its emergency housing list.

Since then, Thomas, who is 24 and has been working toward her high school-equivalency certificate, says she's checked with authorities but has never been given a straight answer about her housing status.

Reggie Scriber, a deputy housing commissioner who was on hand at the time of the fatal fire and promised the survivors aid, recently offered some reasons that Thomas didn't qualify for housing aid.

He said Thomas did not check a box on the housing application indicating that she had a disabled daughter. He noted a misdemeanor theft charge on Thomas' record. But mostly, he now says, he didn't believe she lived in the house that burned. He cited court records from the theft case and a paternity suit that list a different address.

Thomas said she wasn't told any of this. If given the chance, she said, she would have told Scriber that her daughter was legally disabled and that the minor charge resulted in probation before judgment which should not count against her under rules worked out with advocates for the poor. She would also have said that she had lived with her mother for years but kept an old driver's license that served as her only official identification.

But Scriber said he suspected she was trying to game the system: "The real truth is, she didn't live on Cecil Avenue and was trying to use the [housing] department as a crutch," he said.

After inquiries from The Baltimore Sun, Scriber said he was now willing to help Thomas' family. He has asked a caseworker to provide available rental information. He said the authority would pay her security deposit and an unpaid utility bill, and that he would help make her case with potential landlords.

Additionally, he said, inspectors will work to enforce the codes in substandard rentals such as Thomas', something that housing advocates say is spotty. Thomas' landlord was unavailable for comment, and a management company did not return a message.

That's about all Scriber can do for many needy people who come into a housing office these days. There are small pots of money, but often they are used for even more desperate cases.

Thomasina Hiers, director of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, said she's been using federal stimulus dollars for those living in places not suitable for habitation or for those in shelters or transitional housing.

The city has 3,400 homeless people, according to a 2009 census. A new count will be conducted in January.

The overall city goal is to end homelessness in 10 years.

To keep more people from being added to the ranks of the homeless, some of Hiers' funding is going to a partner organization, the Homeless Persons Representation Project. The group works to stop evictions of people on the financial edge. Hiers said 760 households had received benefits in the past fiscal year and nearly 1,600 more received eviction prevention counseling and services.

Carolyn Johnson, the project's managing attorney, said need has grown as many more people have lost jobs.

"They end up living in substandard housing or doubling and tripling up in apartments. It's very common, unfortunately," she said. "It's not safe for them and their children. Substandard housing or emergency shelter is not much of a choice."

Source: By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

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