A story published in the Baltimore Sun last week highlights the struggles and stress that plagues Baltimore City Homeowners who try to contest atypical water bills through the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. St. Ambrose attorneys are working with the DPW and with Baltimore residents to provide guidance in navigating the process of challenging water bills. Since October, however, the appeals process that had been in place to contest water bills has been dismantled and residents’only option is to fill out a complaint form.
The decision to eliminate the appeals process was not announced and poses a major threat to the housing security of many Baltimore City Homeowners who no longer have an opportunity to openly discuss erroneous bills. Our legal department works with clients every day who receive inexplicable water bills that range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars (Don’t believe us?). The elimination of the appeals process creates an especially grave situation as the tax sale deadline approaches and homeowners with unpaid water bills, even grossly inaccurate ones, run the risk of their home going into tax sale foreclosure.
Though city processes have a long way to go to become more equitable for residents, in the short term, much needed relief came for our client Ms. Anderson who was featured in the Baltimore Sun article and was facing a $1,300 water bill. An anonymous donor contacted St. Ambrose to arrange to pay the bill. In fact, eight people reached out to the agency to inquire about contributing to the bill and providing support for other clients who face the risk of losing their home due to water bills.
Staff attorney Christina Ochoa comments on the outpouring of support from the community, “in an industry where we’re so often the bearers of bad news, seeing people’s generosity was really uplifting.”
St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center is a member of Community Development Network of Maryland (CDN). CDN is a group that represents the interests of housing and community development organizations across the state. Although Maryland communities are diverse in so many ways, CDN unites community organizations on our shared goal of making our communities great places where people can thrive and have access to opportunities. The network gathered in Annapolis to meet with legislators and discuss some of the pending legislation this session that could improve and strengthen our communities.
We heard from law makers and had the opportunity to connect and share our on-the-ground experiences as community development professionals. By providing testimony and education about how Maryland laws impact our clients, we can be confident that our legislators have an educated perspective to make decisions that will strengthen communities and people. Below are a few of the highlights from our state legislators and leaders:
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh discussed the necessity of housing and addressing poverty if we are to expect strong education outcomes. Delegate McIntosh also emphasized the importance of passing the HOME act during this session to end discrimination in housing based on source of income only.
House Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar Barve commented that we can’t expect health outcomes or education outcomes to be achieved until we have a safe secure place to live. Many of the bills that impact the community development field are introduced in the House Environment and Transportation Committee.
Land Use and Ethics Sub Committee Chair Steve Lafferty reiterated the importance of the work of housing counselors in Maryland for not only foreclosure prevention, but also to prepare Maryland families for the future through homeownership counseling and financial literacy.
Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Kenneth Holt emphasized the bright future ahead for communities across the state and discussed initiatives to reach the state’s goal of eliminating homelessness.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Maryland government and the general assembly, check out Maryland Manual Online .
If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Community Development Network check out their website here.
Our Homesharing program is featured nationally in NeighborWorks America’s new book, “NeighborWorks Works: Practical Solutions from America’s Community Development Network.”NeighborWorks Works is a collaboration book that showcases the NeighborWorks network’s innovative solutions in affordable housing and community development.
Homesharing, which began matching homeowners with tenants in Baltimore City in 1988, is recognized in the book as a unique and impactful solution to the challenge of creating affordable housing. Through a new program expansion, “Parent-Child Homesharing,” supported by the William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation, Homesharing is now growing into a housing solution for families too!
St. Ambrose is featured alongside 2 other Baltimore organizations and countless more from across the U.S. Each page tells the unique story of an innovative solution that is helping to strengthen and empower our communities. The book illustrates the incredible and far reaching impact that community development has on the communities where we live and grow.
With a donation of $25 or more to the Homesharing program, we will send you a copy of the NeighborWorks Book, complimentary! On the donation page there is a question where you can indicate that you would like a copy of the NeighborWorks Book.
St. Ambrose is participating in a project through the AARP foundation to address isolation among older adults in our senior housing community, Aigburth-Vale mansion, in Towson, MD. Residents who volunteer to participate in the program are given the Amazon Echo, a voice controlled speaker, to use at home, and the AARP Foundation will track volunteers’ usage patterns.
According to Amzon’s website, “Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.”
After a successful initial prototype trial at Aigburth and 3 other senior communities this summer, the project will be expanded in early 2017 to reach seniors all over the country including a larger group of residents at Aigburth-Vale. The goal is to find and advance an innovative solution to reduce the risk of social isolation among older adults.
Al Browne, who is leading the program at the AARP foundation, made a presentation last week for interested residents to learn more about the project and how to participate. Al explained that participants’ engagement patterns will be tracked in an attempt to show three things: people over the age of 50 will want the echo and will use it, ‘skills’ (apps for the Echo) can be created to improve the health of older adults, and investors will be interested in helping to make the echo more affordable for seniors.
Al told the group that for the 12 million older adults living alone in the United States they “gradually disconnect from friends and family.” According to AARP’s website, social isolation is “the result of multiple causes, including poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events such as loss and retirement.” Research also shows that “the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” The AARP foundation is looking for an easy to use technology that could have a positive impact on quality of life of seniors living alone.
The echo was an obvious choice for a number of reasons. The voice assistive technology is simple to use and ideal for an older adult whose sight or motor skills may be deteriorating. The echo provides news and information, and can play music and audio books, all of which help to keep users more connected to the world. But Al comments, sometimes it’s less about the information received, and more just that the technology “feels more human.” You can also ask Alexa to tell you a joke or even give you advice. Users have reported feeling empowered by being able to share the technology with their families and friends.
Edwena, an Aigburth resident volunteered at the meeting, “I took it on vacation and everyone loved it! It brought everyone together, from the little one’s on up and afterwards they said, ‘make sure to bring it next time’”
Al has heard this from participants from other communities too. A man from Miami took Alexa on a cruise and commented that he “felt like a rockstar.”
Al is working with experts in gerontology from across the country in an effort to enhance the product to better address the needs of older adults. In addition to the device’s basic functions, Alexa has the ability to learn “skills” which are like apps that can be installed for the echo. Al’s goal is to identify and develop skills that would promote positive health outcomes for seniors.
Residents at Aigburth had the opportunity to make suggestions for how to make the product most valuable for them. The most common suggestion: “Could Alexa call a family member or an emergency number in the event of a fall?” Though not one of Alexa’s current ‘skills,’ Al has been advocating for this capability. Everyone at Aigburth agreed, emergency assistance would be a major selling point for older adults and their families.
“Can I dictate a story about my childhood to Alexa?” one resident wondered. Al was enthusiastic about the idea that Alexa could help seniors to journal or record oral histories.
And, “What if Alexa could provide reminders about when to take what medications and when to have meals,” a resident’s caretaker questioned.
Input from Aigburth’s users and from senior users throughout the country will help to guide leaders in pushing for improvements to the voice assistive technology that can be catered specifically for the needs of seniors.
Leslie, an Aigburth resident and early participant in the Echo project commented said she uses her echo in this way: “In the morning when I get up, I probably ask for the weather so I know what to wear. I make my shopping list, and if I take a nap, I ask it to wake me up.” Though Leslie commented that she just used Alexa for menial things, it’s easy to see how Alexa is able to offer a little extra help for daily activities.
Many residents were excited about the prospect of the program continuing, and the current echo users at Aigburth have been encouraging their friends and neighbors to get on board with the expanded project. Nancy is probably Alexa’s biggest advocate at Aigburth-Vale. Though Nancy is very active and engaged in her community, she acknowledges that there is a great need among her peers for the kind of social diversion that Alexa offers.
Requirements to participate in the program include having a smart phone and access to WiFi. Both of these things proved to be an obstacle for participants to sign up this summer, but St. Ambrose staff made it a priority to enhance the building’s WiFi and now, each room at the mansion has a strong wireless internet connection. There is a growing list of Aigburth residents who are looking forward to participating in the program. Residents who participate will receive a free Amazon Echo from the AARP foundation that they will get to keep even after the project ends. Volunteers will complete a survey before the program starts, and then they are just asked one simple request: use it!
We’re lighting up N. Charles Street to Celebrate #GivingTuesday – and we need your help!
We’ve joined #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide.
Occurring this year on November 29, #GivingTuesday is held annually on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday to kick-off the holiday giving season and inspire people to collaborate in improving their local communities.
The centerpiece of St. Ambrose’s #GivingTuesday celebration is a display on Baltimore’s giant LED Board located at 1700 N. Charles Street. The LED Board, which is the largest on the East Coast between New York City and Atlanta, will track progress towards our giving goal from 6-8pm on #GivingTuesday and will be updated to recognize donors who have given to the campaign.
3 ways YOU can support St. Ambrose this #GivingTuesday
Donate through qtego.net/home or text HOME to 74121 to give. All donations made this month will count towards our goal- so there’s no need to wait to give!
Join our Giving Event at UB’s Angelos Law Center on Giving Tuesday! Tickets are $25 and include hors d’oeuvres, beer and wine, and stunning city views. Plus you can be part of the celebration as we climb towards our #GivingTuesday goal!
Share your love for St. Ambrose with one, or all of your friends! You can make a difference by telling a story about what St. Ambrose means to you or help us make new friends by sharing our posts on Facebook and Twitter.
We’ll update this post regularly as we get closer to the big day! Thanks for your support and feel free to get in touch with any questions.
David Blenman, a paramedic firefighter in Baltimore County, purchased a St. Ambrose home in the Glenham-Belford neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore at the end of last year. We stopped by his home this week to see how he was settling in and making the house his home.
Blenman got connected to St. Ambrose through his realtor, and after touring several Cape Cod homes he was surprised to find that the Glenham-Belford home was such a perfect fit.What attracted Mr. Blenman to his home was the size and the openness. The yard was an added benefit, which is spacious but manageable.
The open layout is actually one of the home’s new features. When St. Ambrose Housing Development acquired the home in 2015 we removed a wall to enlarge the kitchen and incorporate it more fluidly into the living space. St. Ambrose also added new flooring, cabinets, counter tops, light fixtures, and appliances.
Kitchen: before renovation
Kitchen: before renovation
For Blenman, the homebuying process was straightforward and really exciting. Blenman completed his homebuyer education course through Harbell and was diligent about completeing all the necessary paperwork in a timely way. As a first time homebuyer, Blenman qualified for the Grand Slam Program through the city as well as closing cost assistance from the National Fair Housing Alliance, which is made available through St. Ambrose. Everything really fell into place for Blenman, and he was actually able to close on his home two days ahead of schedule.
It was an exciting time when he sat down to do the math on what he could afford when it came to buying a home. Not only is his monthly payment just as manageable as a rent payment, “it’s mine,” Blenman commented significantly.
And he really has made the home his own. The house is fully furnished and impeccably cared for, complete with a rec room in the basement and a master bedroom suite upstairs, features that add comfort and privacy to this compact home.
As Mr. Blenman points out, between the yard and the living area, it would be easy to host a family function without feeling too crowded, but the home is also a comfortable size for himself and his 14 year old son who lives with him part time. It was also essential that his daughter, who is stationed in Seattle with the Navy, has someplace to come home to.
The office doubles as a third bedroom
St. Ambrose homes are offered first to teachers, firefighters, policemen, and emergency personnel as part of HUD’s “Good Neighbor Next Door Program.” The Good Neighbor program encourages our community’s public servants to support neighborhood revitalization by becoming homeowners. When asked what Blenman is most proud of in his 6 year career with the fire department, he said “just being capable of doing the job.” He admits it’s not for everyone and that it takes heart to go into the fire.
Blenman certainly lives up to the “Good Neighbor” name, before buying his home he had rented an apartment in an older gentleman’s home on the west side of town. Blenman was both a tenant and keeper, taking care of some maintenance items around the house and checking in with his landlord periodically to ensure all was well.
On buying his own home, Blenman admits humbly, “sometimes I come home and I’m still in disbelief that I’m a homeowner.”
Earlier this summer, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works (DPW) announced a three year plan to increase water rates by almost 33% by 2019: 9.9% on October 11, 2016, 9.9% on July 1, 2017, and 9.9% on July 1, 2018. DPW Director Rudy S. Chow announced in late August that the final quarterly water bills will arrive for city consumers in September, and the new monthly billing system will start in October.
The stated purpose of the increases is to cover the cost of various water and wastewater capital improvements, pursuant to the Director’s duty to recommend rates and charges so that water utilities are self-sustaining. On its website DPW explains that the average age of the City’s large water mains is 75 years, and renewal or replacement is required in many sections. There are also additional costs associated with the new BaltiMeters, which are promised to ensure accurate and timely meter readings and to overall be more customer-friendly.
Valid as some of these reasons may be, they all sound vaguely familiar. In July of 2013, rates went up by 15% to fund the new state of the art BaltiMeters and billing system. The increase “ensured” faster repair and replacement of aging infrastructure. In 2014 the rates increased by 11% in order to replace water mains and provide more accurate and reliable water meters, and to improve the billing system. DPW has also publicly stated that in the last 19 years they completed almost 20 miles of water main replacement and rehab.
It is hard not to wonder how the increased funding from prior increases was spent, and how it is that so much more new funding is already required. Does it really cost 33% to create a more customer friendly system? Aren’t there alternative ways to make the system more customer-friendly?
In addition to begging these questions, the new rate structure itself is also puzzling. The old rate structure applied a minimum quarterly charge set by meter size, and it was assessed until the property was formally abandoned, plus a consumption charge that is calculated by cubic feet of water use (units). DPW explained that with the new rate structure they are eliminating the quarterly minimum charge. According to the Board of Estimates Agenda for July 27, 2016, the new water bill is determined by applying a variable rate to each customer’s consumption and adding a fixed rate component. It seems like the DPW is simply replacing the terms “minimum quarterly charge” with “fixed rate component,” because essentially they are identical terms that add a standard charge to everyone’s bill.
Apparently this new structure will encourage water conservation and ensure that bills are more accurate. However, the new structure applies the same rate per unit to all users and replaces the declining block rate which gives a lower rate per unit of water for those using very large volumes of water. How does this encourage water conservation? If those who are using a large consumption of water have a lower rate per unit, how does that encourage one to use less water?
So where did all the money go from the rate increases last year? The rate increases last year did not provide better customer service or more accurate billing. The Legal Services Department at St. Ambrose regularly receives calls from city residents similarly complaining about high water bills which DPW is unable to justify. The informal water conference process in place to dispute such bills was a non-judicial process in which evidence was scarce and there was no right to appeal the hearing officer’s determination. This process routinely left homeowners stuck with high bills and without any further way to contest them.
There is clearly a drastic need to reform the DPW and the billing system beyond simply turning quarterly bills into monthly bills. As of now it is unclear how the rate increases are necessary for reform, or what the full scope of the reform will be. According to the Board of Estimates Agenda for July 27, 2016, DPW began testing the new system and started training their employees on its use. However, an employee from St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center recently spoke with individuals in the DPW billing department and customer service department. She asked various questions about the specifics of the new increases and no one could provide any information whatsoever in regards to the increases.
We at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center hope the reforms bring improved accuracy in billing, a meaningful appeals process to contest erroneous billing, and clarity as to how the rate increases help achieve these ends. Our organization deals with water billing regularly, as we provide services for low to moderate income families with housing needs. Many of our clients will be greatly impacted by this massive increase in their water bill because they are already struggling financially. Last year we represented a client for his water bill hearing. He hoped to adjust his water bill because his water meter was replaced five times and still continued to provide faulty readings of his family’s consumption. In the end, with the help of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, the bill was reduced by over two hundred dollars which made a huge difference for our client and his family. However, not all residents are so lucky in challenging extremely high water bills. The city often refuses to adjust their bills leaving struggling homeowners in risk of tax sale.
St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center will always provide help or guidance to those struggling with their water bills, but we also provide housing counseling services, affordable rental housing, homesharing services, and legal services relating to housing. Not only will this rate increase affect low to moderate income families, but also the organizations that are trying to help these families secure stable, affordable housing. We understand that sometimes rate increases may be necessary, but the families who bear the burden of these increases deserve transparency and results.