Public Policy. It shapes everything we do and dictates what we shouldn’t do. Sometimes it acts in place of common sense, which I find both troubling and puzzling. It can make us stronger, but it can also destroy us. But what is it, really, and how do we go about striking a balance between what is just and good, and what is guided by self-interest and greed?
In the context of housing, particularly in a city like Baltimore, you’d have to travel back in time about 50 years to see where things went awry. I’ll spare you the history lesson, because much has been written on the subject of discriminatory housing laws in Baltimore — the who, what, when, and how. If you’d like to do some reading on your own, please consider purchasing “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City” by Antero Pietila. I have no less than three copies of this book, and I consider it to be the gold standard when it comes to the history of housing in Baltimore City. If you do read it, pay close attention to the names in the book — you’ll find that the names will sound very familiar to you if you live here. And I don’t mean that in a positive way.
In 1968, the US government passed the Fair Housing Act, the first piece of Federal legislation that prohibited discrimination in housing, for both renters and homeowners. It came about as a larger civil rights effort to grant equality in all areas. However, like most laws, some followed it…and some didn’t. And still don’t. This is where policy work is important — not just the enforcement piece, but to ensure that people understand they have rights and how to go about exercising those rights when things go wrong. I’ll give you an example of modern-day discrimination:
I moved to Baltimore in 2000, knowing very little about the city beyond the Inner Harbor. I solicited the services of a realtor to find a home to rent. I found listings online that I would send to her periodically, including a large Victorian home on Liberty Heights Avenue. She flat-out refused to show me most of the homes I requested to see and said “Oh you don’t want to live in that neighborhood.” Considering the fact that she was a white lady of (shall we say) a certain age, I chalked it up to her being a racist…so I fired her.
My next realtor was a young African-American woman, thinking that she would be a little hipper and perhaps open-minded, I again sent her links to homes I wanted to see, and made it quite clear that I was firmly resolved to living in the city, not in the suburbs. And not in a majority-white neighborhood, either. I wanted to actually live in the city, not in some weird faux-suburban bubble. Turns out she did the same thing the first realtor did. She steered me away (pay attention to the word “steered”) from all the homes I wanted to see, and instead took me to see a home behind the Walmart on Route 40 in Catonsville. I fired her, too, right after that.
“But Carol, you should thank these women. They might have saved you from living in a bad neighborhood.”
Actually, what they did was break the law. They engaged in something called “steering”. And it’s one of the most common ways realtors and other real estate professionals sometimes employ discriminatory practices, in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Add that to the recent incidences of redlining (the practice of not lending money to potential homeowners based on race, gender, etc.) — we still, even in 2015, have a large number of people who are unable to move to better opportunities and create stable lives for themselves and their families. Even worse, add in the incidents of blockbusting that began the decline of many of Baltimore’s communities 50 years ago — communities that are now the city’s most blighted and crime-ridden, as a direct result. Blockbusting, like steering and redlining, continues even now.
The recent mortgage meltdown opened up yet another Pandora’s box: a rental bubble. With so many foreclosed homes, investors saw an opportune time to enact another get-rich-at-the-expense-of-others scheme. People who lost their homes to foreclosure need rentals. The foreclosed homes were selling cheaply, and why not snap them all up for a song and rent them at a price higher than what the local economy can bear? While not illegal, there has been a negative consequence — an unsustainable market that continues to drive away median-income renters who can no longer afford to live in Baltimore. People who earn the median are also generally the largest taxpaying group of residents — in other words, they’re the folks who pay for things like the fire department and trash collection, along with other city services. A city cannot survive over the long-term without a large middle-class taxpaying population — and Baltimore’s is dwindling.
Changing public policy, along with the enforcement of current laws, is critical to the health of our city. Without that component, all of the hard work we do is for naught. We must protect the rights of residents to live where they choose, and not where mortgage brokers and realtors choose. We also must protect the city’s tax base by providing affordable rental housing to those who need it. We must change housing policy to benefit residents first, not politicians and multi-million dollar developers. We must make this a priority. Because even in the most abstract sense, policy matters. Policy is what we need to grow and become a healthier, safer city for all residents, not just those at the top of the income scale.