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Baltimore residents want money for rental assistance and housing stability during BOE taxpayer’s night

Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Baltimore City Hall.

Community members and advocacy groups packed the Board of Estimates Room in City Hall on Wednesday night. For the second-year, Taxpayers Night was held in a hybrid format, with attendees also participating online.

It was the first of two chances for residents to be vocal about Mayor Brandon Scott’s $4.4 billion budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2024.

Housing stability dominated the night with Baltimore Renters United showing up with big demands. They want the city to budget to include $25 million for emergency rental assistance to prevent evictions.

“If you've been in eviction court in the past two weeks, out of the 50 people that can fit in the courtroom, 30 of them are black women,” said Heather Johnson, a Baltimore resident. “Most of whom have their children with them.”

Congress released federal emergency rental funds during the earlier part of the pandemic but those funds have almost run dry, leaving cities and states to come up with the money. Mayor Scott did announce an additional $5 million in emergency rental assistance last week during his State of the City address.

In addition to emergency rental assistance, housing activists want the city to support renters in eviction court.

They want $1.6 million to implement the city’s new ‘right to counsel law’ that connects tenants in eviction court with a lawyer.

“I tried to represent myself at a trial,” said Antoine Hudnell, of Allendale, who said he recently went through eviction court himself. “But I didn't feel like I was being listened to. Or that I had a chance to tell my side of the story.”

The current budget proposal contains less than half a million for ‘right to counsel.’ Activists specifically want that funding to go towards community-based organizations that provide legal assistance.

There’s no way to know exactly where funding like that is going at this point in the process. Residents are only looking at a broad overview of the budget: a line-item agenda with more specific details won’t be available until closer to mid-May.

The mayor has emphasized that his budget focuses on investing in youth. There are provisions for new recreation centers and a new library.

Baltimore still has to make cuts to come up with an extra $79 million that the city will have to spend on schools due to a change in the funding formula under the Maryland Blueprint for Education. Scott called that revelation a “gut punch” earlier this month. Officials had originally thought they would only need to come up with an extra $12 million– some of the deficit can be covered by a surplus from the last fiscal year. The city is trying to make up for the rest in eliminating and other areas that may have been over budgeted in years past.

Police funding was also a frequent target of conversation.

Technically Baltimore City is actually contributing less to policing in this year’s budget proposal than it did last year: the city itself is contributing $524.9 million to the department, compared to $525.1 million in the FY 2023 adjusted budget. But through state and federal grants, the city is getting almost an extra $5 million for the department. When all of that extra funding is taken into consideration, it still amounts to more money for the police.

Some of that funding will go towards five civilian positions that will work with victims of violent crime, that is offset by the elimination of five vacant positions in the department.

Ralikh Hayes of Organizing Black told the BOE that he doesn’t think the does not think the current budget proposal, including the police budget, will translate into benefits for residents.

“We know that this budget doesn't prioritize the needs of people. We know it doesn't prioritize the money to the families that historically live here,” said Hayes. “And, you know, BPD is still one of the greatest expenses. And I do acknowledge historically this administration has invested less than other administrations in BPD.”

Scott campaigned on a platform of police reform, promising to reform police funding and make investments in holistic services to tackle Baltimore’s crime problems. This budget does include funding for the expansion of programs like the Group Violence Reduction Strategy.

Overall, residents spoke of the different ways they needed the city budget to support them whether that was investing in youth, housing protections or other community development projects.

Hayes also spoke to recent census data that shows Black Baltimoreans are leaving the city.

“Black families are leaving the city in droves. Right? That is your legacy. That will be the legacy of your administrations and your terms [in office] if we don't do something different.”

Youth investment is one of the biggest sections of this year’s budget proposal, with provisions for new recreation centers and a new library. Residents will get a second chance in May to comment on the budget before it goes to the City Council.

For the first time in 125 years, the council will have the ability to cut and add items from the city budget.

Emily is a general assignment news reporter for WYPR.
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