St. Ambrose Reflects

These row homes on 23rd and 1/2 St were damaged by fires in the 1968 riots. St. Ambrose repaired and renovated them to revitalize the neighborhood.
These row homes on 23rd and 1/2 St were damaged by fires in the 1968 riots. St. Ambrose repaired and renovated this block to help revitalize our neighborhood.

The death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore City Police stirred Baltimore as our neighbors took their frustration to the streets to call for justice. These events have forced the city to step back and reflect on issues of poverty, racism, violence and justice- issues that have defined Baltimore’s history.

Here at St. Ambrose, conversation in the halls of 321 E. 25th St has broadened from our usual discussion of the daily developments within our programs to the greater, overarching issues facing our city. We’ve shared the reactions and experiences from our own corners of the city, debated the triumphs and falls of the city school system and police department, exchanged editorials and volunteer opportunities over email, while always reaffirming our commitment to the work that we do.

Below are a few comments contributed from staff members across departments as we reflect on the city that we love and support:

Last week, feelings of empathy for the conditions that brought the rioters to violence fiercely competed with a distaste of the self-destructiveness of the violence and heartache for its negative effects on local businesses and the citizens who relied on them.  Sprinklings of hope were added to this stew of emotions as I read, watched, and heard stories of citizens from different backgrounds coming together to clean up, restore peace, and bring healing. With renewed confidence, but a nagging sense of uncertainty, I will wait and see if this groundswell of grassroots collaboration can bring about a broader confrontation with the social and economic problems that affect this city and others like it.

So many emotions were going through my mind and heart as I watched the anger erupt.  We love our city. My daughter and family have chosen to live here and my heart ached for them.  I also thought of all the people of our world who face this and worse every day.  My hope is that we will all face the fact that we have problems.  Awareness is the first step.  Acceptance is even harder, but I think denial is being cracked.  With prayer and confidence that the force for good is stronger than the force for evil, men and women of Baltimore will talk to one another without labeling and take a step at a time.  We all swim or we all sink….we are in this together.

I am happy the six police officers will stand trial for the death of Freddie Gray. I hope that our city can move forward to peaceful protests to get our point across without violence.

Defending the city of Baltimore to friends and family who live in other parts of the country has been one of the hardest parts, but it’s always been difficult to convince outsiders that Baltimore is a great place to live. City neighborhoods define and segregate Baltimore, and for too long the rest of the city has ignored and avoided the neighborhoods where the violence erupted. At the same time, I saw a lot of the peaceful protests over the last few weeks going on downtown, and I was so impressed by how many young people are very aware of the problems that face this city and that they want to be a part of the solution. This gives me hope for the future.

As the national media shifts their attention away from Baltimore and the city searches for justice and peace, St. Ambrose continues to do the same thing it set out to do in the wake of the 1968 riots- encourage and support strong and diverse neighborhoods. Our vigor for the work that we do and our commitment to support the city of Baltimore is resolute.

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Shortage of housing for the poor grows

Originally posted on The Baltimore Sun

By Natalie Sherman, The Baltimore Sun
nsherman@baltsun.com

6:07 PM EST, March 8, 2014

It’s growing increasingly difficult for the poorest families in Baltimore to find affordable rental housing, and some housing advocates worry new housing policies such as privatization could make the problem worse.

An analysis by the Urban Institute found a yawning gap between the number of low-income renter households and affordable units available in every jurisdiction in the country.

In Baltimore City in 2012, there were 43 affordable units available per 100 extremely low-income households, down from 58 in 2000, according to the study published last week. The number dropped to 16 in Howard County in 2012 from 38 a dozen years earlier.

The forces behind the widening gap vary. Many experts say the gap comes down to money: The private market rarely builds or rehabilitates units for the poorest families, cities and states can’t afford it, and federal spending hasn’t kept pace.

“You can only house the really low-income with a significant cash subsidy, and the question is: Where is that money going to come from?” said Robert Embry, a former Baltimore housing commissioner who is now president of the Abell Foundation.”Housing was only provided when the federal government made money available, and the federal government is reducing its role in this area.”

The Urban Institute’s report came out the same week the Housing Authority of Baltimore City disclosed a plan to sell 22 of its high-rises — nearly 40 percent of the city’s stock of public housing — to developers that would modernize the facilities. The plan raised concerns that that might further reduce the availability of public housing among some advocates.

The Washington-based think tank’s report defined extremely low-income as households earning less than 30 percent of an area’s median income — meaning less than $25,700 a year for a family of four in 2012 throughout the Baltimore area. Affordability is measured as housing that costs less than a third of a household’s income.

The number of such families rose by as much as 10 percent in Carroll County and 60 percent in Baltimore County during the 12-year period, according to the analysis. Meanwhile, the supply of affordable units in the counties fell drastically, driven in part by surging demand for rentals at all income levels.

In Baltimore City, the number of these low-income families increased just 2 percent, but the affordable rental supply fell by about 24 percent, with much of that drop occurring before 2006, the Urban Institute found.

The study’s count of available units does not include what are considered substandard units or affordable apartments occupied by higher-income households.

For the families that do rent affordable units, federal programs are critical: Nationwide, 97 percent of the 3.26 million affordable units available to extremely low-income renters receive federal assistance, the institute estimated. Local waiting lists for some housing voucher programs are thousands of people long — 25,000 households in Baltimore County alone.

But since the 1980s, federal housing policy has shifted from deep subsidies to supporting private developers with tax credits and public financing in exchange for rent limits on some of their apartments. That has limited funds for public housing and Section 8 vouchers that guarantee rent does not exceed 30 percent of a qualified family’s income.

The new programs allow landlords to rent subsidized units to families with a wider range of incomes, still below an area median income. The looser requirements assure broader access to affordable housing and help avoid concentrations of poverty, policymakers said.

“There are people at different income levels that need assistance, and we try to make sure that we’ve got integrated housing opportunities,” said Patricia Rynn Sylvester, director of multifamily housing for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

The policy changes have left out the poorest families, said Trudy McFall, chairman of Annapolis-based nonprofit Homes for America and president of the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition

“It’s good to have housing that’s more of a mix of incomes,” she said. “The problem is we’re not beginning to replace very low-income units with these new programs.”

The state provides incentives for developers competing for the tax credits to reserve more units for the poorest families and has partnered with the Weinberg Foundation to devote some funds to units for families at 15 percent or less of area median income, Sylvester said.

Across the country, housing officials are moving to sell public housing units to private developers, just as Baltimore said it would do last week. Proponents say it will raise millions needed to renovate the properties, in part by allowing the public units to access the tax credit financing.

The city’s federal funds for public housing capital projects have fallenfrom $30 million in 1997 to $12.8 million this year, said Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.

In addition to Baltimore’s plan, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development documents show privatization projects from housing authorities across the state, including applications from Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

Some housing advocates said they worry private ownership will exacerbate the shortage for the poorest families, allowing developers to reduce the number of units overall or steer housing toward families further up the income ladder.

“I can’t really speak definitively about that, but one would always be concerned,” said Jeff Singer, former CEO of Health Care for the Homeless who teaches at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “It’s a little difficult to know precisely, because I am operating with a lack of information from the Housing Authority. They’ve been so secretive about the process that I don’t know what sort of contracts they’ll be signing with project developers and how they will limit the ability to rent to higher incomes.”

The average income of families in Baltimore public housing is about $12,000 a year, according to the Housing Authority.

Spokeswoman Cheron Porter said officials do not expect the makeup of tenants to change with privatization. The authority’s income-limit calculations will remain the same, and privatized units will go to households on its waiting list, currently 28,000 families long, she said.

The units will operate like so-called “project-based” Section 8 vouchers, she said.

“With a poverty rate at or above 25 percent for the city of Baltimore and our ongoing history of serving the most vulnerable population, we would not expect [income composition] to change,” she said.

McFall, whose Homes for America is one of the nonprofits participating in Baltimore’s privatization program, said it could preserve the number of housing units for the poorest families depending on how local authorities implement the program.

Moreover, she said, privatization will mean more units for the poorest families could access a state-administered pool of subsidized financing.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s new budget seeks $24 million for the Rental Housing Works program, which provides state financing for private affordable housing projects. If funded at that level, $6 million will be reserved for the converted public housing units, according to the state.

“However this budget comes out, we will be using more of the federal and state resources that have tended to go to moderate incomes, and more of them will go to preserve, maintain or rebuild housing that serves people who get a deep subsidy,” McFall said.

But, she said, that doesn’t mean she is optimistic about the affordable-housing shortage.

“It’s creating better housing, and it might create more moderate income housing, but it isn’t creating new housing units for [families] at 30 percent or below,” she said. “And therein is why our shortage grows and grows.”

Housing is a Human Right…That’s the Word on the Street

Hi,

My name is Emma and I’m one of the Homesharing Counselors at St. Ambrose. This year I am participating in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a national program that matches college-educated individuals with a non-profit for a year to learn about issues of social justice in the United States. Part of my goal working at St. Ambrose this year is to learn about housing equity. Someone once told me the difference between housing equality and equity by telling me a metaphor about people who need shoes. Equality means that everyone gets shoes, while equity means that everyone gets shoes that actually fit their feet. I was drawn to St. Ambrose because they not only work to help people find housing, but housing that really fits their needs.

___________________________________________________

As one way of broadening my understanding of housing equity, on November 23rd, I attended an event called “Sleep Out for Housing Justice.” The event, sponsored by Baltimore nonprofit Housing Our Neighbors, brings together people who are currently or formerly homeless with housing advocates and community members. Among the organizations represented there were St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Health Care for the Homeless, Word on the Street, and students from Loyola and UM’s Social Work programs. Together, we shared a meal, participated in a public forum. Following the forum, those tough enough to brave the bone-chilling winds slept outside City Hall for the night, in solidarity with those who have no other place to sleep. The event was designed to bring awareness about homelessness and to generate discussion about how housing policy is supposed to be and the reality on the ground.

Housing Our Neighbors did an excellent job organizing this event. When we arrived at the park, everyone received a hot bowl of rice and chili, with a vegetarian option available for those who don’t eat meat. It can be hard to find vegetarian food or nutritious options when you’re living on the street, one man informed me. When you lose your housing, you lose the freedom to eat what you want, when you want, and even to practice your religion–which, for some religious affiliations like Buddhism, can mean a vegetarian diet.

Another freedom that you lose when you lack stable housing is the ability to go to the bathroom when and where you need to. If you’ve ever needed to use the restroom downtown and haven’t wanted to buy something to do so, you have some idea of how frustrating this can be: Baltimore City law prohibits public urination, yet lacks public bathrooms. Imagine now that you don’t have any money to purchase access to the restrooms and you’re sleeping outside. You face the choice of urinating in the street at night and facing a nearly $1,000 fine, which, unpaid, could lead to prison time….or holding it and risking a bladder infection, leading to hospitalization and costly medical fees. Is this fair treatment for people forced to live on the street?

We like to think that this kind of situation is someone else’s problem, and couldn’t happen to ourselves, personally. But homelessness–defined by health organizations as a lack of permanent housing–can happen to perfectly ‘normal’ people, and is often not the individual’s fault. Homelessness can be the result of sudden changes like illness, divorce, or the death of a family member, which cause mental distress and ultimately result in financial distress.

Now, homelessness is an epidemic that has not existed forever. When my mother was my age, back in the 1970s, you didn’t see twenty people sleeping out on the street on any given night. So what is its cause and what is its solution?

A member of Housing Our Neighbors pointed out that it is important to give people a hand-up, rather than a hand-out. Reflecting on this concept, I realized that St. Ambrose is one of the organizations working to give people a hand up. For those already facing foreclosure, our Foreclosure Prevention provides free one-on-one counseling about how to negotiate with mortgage lenders and budget a plan to stay up on mortgage payments. For those interested in sharing their home as a way to earn extra income, or in sharing someone else’s home as a low-cost housing option, our Homesharing program carefully screens individuals and matches them with one another based on personal preferences.

Monday morning, I returned to work at St. Ambrose with a greater understanding of the nature and importance of housing equity. True, some people, like me, choose to sleep outside sometimes for fun. Coming from a Pacific Northwest background, I enjoy camping with friends on occasion. But no one should have to sleep outside every night. When someone is ready to settle down with their family—or needs a place where they can live together with their kids—or simply needs shelter when the temperatures dip below freezing at night—we at St. Ambrose believe they should have that opportunity.

For the Baltimore Sun’s take on Sleep Out for Housing Justice, you can click on this link: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-24/news/bs-md-ci-housing-justice-20131123_1_public-housing-housing-justice-inner-harbor

Homesharing: Connecting Compatible Roommates

homesharing_12-0427

By Emma Jornlin

Homesharing is a great option for those who don’t want to live alone. Oftentimes individuals who come to St. Ambrose are looking for a roommate but, for various reasons, don’t want to live with family or close friends.

The benefits of Homesharing abound. On the Home Provider’s part, sharing your house can mean assistance with household expenses, receiving help with chores or, as a recent article in the Chicago Tribune mentioned, just having someone with whom to watch Dancing with the Stars!

On the Home Seeker’s part, moving in with a Home Provider in Baltimore City/County can mean obtaining affordable housing while having the opportunity to share in someone lifestyle or culture—even being welcomed into the family. One of our Home Providers introduces Home Seekers to her grandkids when they visit. Another invites her Homesharers upstairs for Friday night dinners.

For those who don’t like the idea of having to greet someone before they’ve had their coffee or navigating someone  shower schedule, private baths and entrances are available for a slightly higher price than the average $450-500/month.

Our goal at St. Ambrose is to match people based on personality and preferences so that our Home Owners find the right person to share their home and our Home Seekers feel genuinely welcome there.

Here is an overview of our process:

  1. Homeowners apply through our online application or request a mail-in form.
  2. Homeowners are interviewed in their home.
  3. Homeseekers are interviewed at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.
  4. Homesharing staff screen and check references of Home Providers and Home Seekers to make sure they have a clean criminal history, no current addictions, and that they have a good rental history.
  5. Our Homesharing Counselors discuss and refer possible Homesharers, based on asking rent, location, and other “non-negotiables,” as well as based on personality and likes/dislikes.
  6. Home Seekers visit the Home Provider’s’ homes until each party decides on a roommate they like.
  7. Our staff meets with the Homesharers to formalize the match.
  8. We check in on the match once a quarter for the first year and provide free mediation services if needed.

The Homesharing Department is reachable at: (410) 366-6180 or you can go to www.stambros.org

Food is A Right, Not A Privilege

Apples and Oranges Fresh Market

By Phillip Westry

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Center of a Livable Future define a food desert as an area where the distance to a supermarket is more than ¼ mile, the median household income is at or below 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, and over 40% of households have no vehicle available.

All of the statistics aside, living in a food desert is not only inconvenient, but it can be bad for your health. In food deserts the most convenient foods come from fast food establishments and convenience stores. Studies have shown that people who live in food deserts have increased accessibility to low quality, high-fat foods. In Baltimore City food deserts, it’s easier to get Chinese food, fried chicken, a handle of gin or potato chips than it is to get an apple, orange, low-fat milk or kale. In Baltimore City, 68% of the population is either overweight or obese, and nearly 36% of the population has high blood pressure.

East Baltimore Midway is no longer considered a food desert with the opening of Apples and Oranges Fresh Market in March. Owners Erich and his wife Michele Speaks-March, have deep roots in East Baltimore. Erich March is the Vice President of March Funeral Homes, which has served the community for more than 50 years. The couple decided that East Baltimore needed a place to buy health food. In an interview with WBAL Erich March explained, “The community has been crying for a supermarket. I went to the big supermarket chains, and they weren’t interested in coming into our community, so we decided if anybody’s going to do it, we have to do it ourselves.” Apples & Oranges Market is a 4,800-square-foot, supermarket located between the Oliver and Darley Park neighborhoods at the corner of East North Avenue and Broadway.

In March 2010, the Baltimore City Health Department launched its Virtual Supermarket Project. The program allows residents living in and around East Baltimore and the Washington Village neighborhood the ability to order groceries from local retailers online. Resident can use free computers at the Enoch Pratt Free Library System to shop for grocery on Santoni’s Supermarket.

For more information about the Virtual Supermarket Program:
http://baltimorehealth.org/virtualsupermarket.html

Check the Map to see if you live in a food desert:

Food Desert Map of Baltimore City

Home Matters: Renting and Owning

The MacArthur Foundation published a recent report that indicates that Americans are not totally convinced that the ‘housing crisis’ is over and many, while still adhering to the dream of homeownership, are willing to wait awhile before embarking on that effort.

”  A strong desire remains among Americans to own their own home – in fact, greater than seven in 10 renters aspire to own one day.  However, the overall appeal of renting versus owning is changing.  Fifty-seven (57%) of adults believe that “buying has become less appealing,” and by nearly the same proportion (54%), a majority believes that “renting has become more appealing” than it was before.”

Lifestyle changes, as evidenced by a more mobile younger population who are willing to relocate for work, account for some of the shift.  However, increases in rents charged and historically low mortgage interest rates remain factors in this major financial decision.  To read more about this subject visit: http://www.macfound.org/programs/how-housing-matters/

Character Is Key

In the depths of the recession, many people found strength and security within their immediate communities. People sought solace and discovered it in one another, in their neighbors. And not just the families next door, but neighbors like St. Ambrose, which is able to provide professional foreclosure support and offer education and resources to beleaguered homeowners during a crisis and in their own times of need, providing stability to neighborhoods in turbulent times.

Now that the country is moving towards financial stability, “cities are seeking the recipe for economic success in a rapidly changing global marketplace,” according to urban planner Edward McMahon. In his article, entitled “Character Is Key to an Economically Vibrant City,” McMahon cites one particularly surprising necessity for economic success- “community distinctiveness”. Referencing the Soul of the Community Survey put forth by the Knight Foundation and Gallup pollsters, McMahon talks about community appeal and its relationship to economic strength. Turns out, the stronger the bonds are between a community and its residents, the stronger the economy is. It appears a community’s uniqueness adds another dimension to its economic and social value.

Each of the neighborhoods that St. Ambrose works in has its unique flavor and identity.  Often shaped by the housing stock, Belair-Edison enjoys the distinctive style of the Baltimore Rowhome, the Waverlies are more diverse and Victorian, Lauraville and Hamilton have Mission type bungalows and each has a strong community presence through activism and engagement.

For many of the same reasons that I’ve decided to call Baltimore my home, this city reflects McMahon’s notion of community distinctiveness and character- and I believe that it works to Baltimore’s advantage. The strong sense of identity that defines each of Baltimore’s unique neighborhoods brings residents together and reinforces ties to the city. Indeed it seems that Baltimore’s charm is the key to the future.

The article mentioned above was recently published in the Atlantic Cities, an online magazine and division of the Atlantic. Atlantic Cities explores issues faced by cities worldwide and presents news, analysis, data, and trends, and innovative ideas for community improvement and revitalization.

Here’s a product of the Soul of the Community Survey that talks about community attachment: 

 

Why are you attached to Baltimore?