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City bill would provide up to $1,500 in monthly rent assistance for families in housing crises

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A sign advertises an apartment for rent. On Monday, Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos introduced a bill to create a short-term rental assistance program for families experiencing housing crises.

A new bill before the Baltimore City Council would offer up to $1,500 a month in rental assistance for families experiencing housing emergencies.

Legislation introduced by Councilwoman Odette Ramos calls for the Department of Housing & Community Development to give up to 12 payments directly to participants’ landlords.

“We know that one of the major obstacles to success is housing,” the freshman Democrat said at a council meeting Monday.

Housing emergencies are defined as homelessness, mortgage foreclosure or tax sale foreclosure. Another provision makes eligible families “experiencing a crisis where access to stable housing is essential to removing the family from the state of crisis.” Families enrolled in certain violence reduction and job training programs may also participate.

“Sometimes that first check doesn't come quite yet when you need to be able to pay the rent,” Ramos said, noting also that workers and participants in the violence intervention programs Roca and Safe Streets have told her that harmful or unstable living situations contribute to Baltimore’s violence.

Under the bill, DCHD would be required to conduct audits every four months to ensure that participating families are still eligible for the program. Families who are turned away from the program would receive a written notice that includes reasons for the denial within 15 business days.

The program would begin in January 2023, should the bill become law. The legislation does not include an estimated cost for the program but notes that admission is subject to the availability of funds.

She also introduced a bill to change the city’s current inclusionary housing law, which was passed in 2007 and requires new housing developments to include some units that are rented or sold at below-market-rate prices. Housing advocates have long said such policies can help dismantle racial and economic segregation by increasing affordable housing options.

In less than 15 years, Baltimore’s law has yielded 37 affordable units. Ramos said the current policy has too many loopholes, such as waivers that exempt some housing developments.

“And so this version that you see before you swings the total opposite direction, and removes those loopholes so that we are ensuring all of these units that we need in areas that typically don't have affordable units,” she said. “This is a paradigm shift in affordable housing and making sure that we have mixed income communities.”

The bill draws on findings from a study by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth and Enterprise Community Partners, which noted that the amount of both owner and renter households that are severely cost burdened — meaning they pay at least half of their income toward housing — has increased dramatically throughout Maryland since 2000.

The study highlights a shortage of 85,000 affordable housing units throughout the state for households earning less than 30% of median income and notes that people of color, individuals with disabilities and seniors are disproportionately affected by housing hurdles such as high security deposits.

Council President Nick Mosby said the bills are the second phase of his House Baltimore legislative package, designed to bring the city in line with 21st century housing policies.

The first package of bills, introduced last fall, has met fierce criticism from Mayor Brandon Scott’s cabinet and has yet to go before the council for a preliminary vote.

“The failed policies of the past have concentrated poverty, not developed mixed-use, mixed-income areas,” Mosby said.