Housing the homeless in vacants – why not?

Other cities are trying it, or at least considering the idea seriously. Some links to what they've found.

homeless encampment

Homeless encampment on the Fallsway.

Photo by: Mark Reutter

With Baltimore awash in an estimated 16,000 vacant houses, including many that are city-owned, why not use some of them to shelter some of our 4,000 citizens who are sleeping on the street or in shelters?

It’s a natural question, and one that’s being asked a lot lately with the city leveling a homeless encampment under I-83 and a fatal stabbing reported Sunday morning at the Weinberg emergency shelter.

Whether sleeping on peoples’ couches, in doorways or under overpasses, Baltimore’s homeless population has been rising in recent years, raising questions about whether the city’s “10-Year Journey Home” strategy is having any effect at all.

Emergency shelter space is scarce and, according to many homeless people who have used it, chaotic and dangerous. Amid Baltimore’s poverty, dearth of good jobs and other urban ills, the need for a solution that is affordable, safer and less short-term is becoming apparent.

So could that solution be hiding in plain sight in the form of Baltimore’s boarded-up houses? Or is this a facile and unworkable pipe dream? The answer seems to be is somewhere in between.

Across the Street from Whole Foods?

Cities from New York to Paris have been seriously considering it. Should Baltimore consider doing so as well, here’s a quick-reading list to get the conversation going:

Why Can’t We Just Convert Vacant Buildings into Housing for the Homeless? (Atlantic Cities). The piece mentions a couple of models for converting vacant housing into space for the homeless but also talks about their limitations.

Under the Title V program (part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act), for instance, the federal government requires that empty or “underused” properties that it owns be made available to homelessness advocacy organizations. There’s also the 1994 Base Closure Act, which converts closed bases into homeless housing (run by a local redevelopment authority).

Homeless Fix Can Be Found in Vacant Buildings, Lots: Report (WNYC). Discusses the reaction to a 2012 report by the New York-based group, Picture the Homeless (“Banking on Vacancy“) that says tens of thousands of apartments that are vacant could be re-purposed to solve the long standing city’s homeless problem:

“The same neighborhoods that send high numbers of families into the homeless shelter system have the highest density of vacant property – in most of them, there is enough vacant space to house ten times as many people as are currently housed in shelters in that district. Citywide, vacant property could house the entire shelter population five times over.”

Still Housing the Needy in a Changed Manhattan (The New York Times). Baltimore has “supportive housing,” an interim step between emergency shelter and market housing. Here’s a story describing how the concept has worked out surprisingly well in upscale parts of New York:

“About 25 years ago, when many of Manhattan’s grand older buildings were derelict and decrepit, the city started selling abandoned buildings and troubled single-room-occupancy hotels to social service agencies for use as long-term ‘supportive housing’ for chronically homeless New Yorkers. At the time, the buildings were haggard, having surrendered long before to drug dealers and decay, and the neighborhoods where they stood were often sketchy.”

Today, these facilities are still operating, but “in a different universe,” the article continues, describing how affordable units for low-income people with HIV/AIDS and mental illness are next to high-priced condos, a Whole Foods and fancy restaurants.

Could France’s empty office buildings ease its homeless crisis? (Christian Science Monitor). The piece describes how 60 people have moved into an unoccupied four-story office building in the 10th arrondissement and how these “occupations” have gotten attention in a city with an estimated 190,000 homeless.

“The government has identified 120 vacant buildings in and around Paris, and is conducting “technical visits” to assess whether the properties are inhabitable,” the article reports.

“Though owners will be offered compensation, it doesn’t bode well for absentee landlords who wish to wait for property values to soar even higher before they sell to the highest bidder.”

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  • James Hunt

    Fern, I appreciate where you’re going with this, but most vacants are in such rough shape (needing lead and asbestos abatement, new roofs, etc.) and among so many other buildings in rough shape that they needed a dedicated homesteader/rehabber or demolition.

    Besides, once you rehab ‘em, you have to maintain ‘em, and that’s a beyotch. Amirite?

    This city also has an abundance of vacant lots. Wonder if anyone’s tried combining several lots and putting in a cluster of “tiny houses” (cf. available for a modest rent. Provide “a room of one’s own” for the Camp 83 folks and let them form an “autonomous collective” to keep some sense of order and look after each other.
    Anyway, if nothing else, I want commenter points for combining Virginia Woolf and Monty Python references in the same post.
    (Whaddya mean there are no commenter points?)

  • Gerald Neily

    Housing for the homeless melds two fields, housing services and homeless services. But housing “experts” have collectively failed even more dramatically and conspicuously in Baltimore than have homeless advocates, as shown by 16,000 or 40,000 vacant houses. The homeless are just yet another housing market with even lower incomes than low income housing.

  • bmorepanic

    There are issues of cost that are somewhat different here than in New York. For buildings, we have a lot of small, scattered sites – many in significantly worse shape than the NY article describes – without solid structure, roofs, windows, doors, or utilities. It is more expensive per living unit to do scattered site rehabs than doing a single large building in many ways.

    Small projects don’t lend themselves to economies of scale for both the initial conversion-rehabilitation and for ongoing support services like security and maintenance. It’s likely easier to get funding for factory or office building conversions- creating 100 to 200 jr. apartments within a single site. These types of projects involve bigger budgets and funding for ongoing services. They are more interesting to larger organizations with the experience in managing projects and setting up services.

    I’m guessing its more politically attractive to get potentially 200 people into permanent housing through one project than to have to manage 34 individual scattered site projects to get the same results.

    Also, and this will sound silly, but a sizable project like that could be located somewhere that is “a place” with transportation and shopping available to building clients. Looking at on the “Vacant to Value” web site, the buildings available seemed to mostly scattered site row houses located in areas with few residents remaining and significant security issues.

    (For a program decreed a success by SRB – there were plenty of “Vacant to Value” properties still available.)

  • trueheart4life

    On Monday evening our City Council passed Council Bill 13-0176 containing a 15 year tax credit for High-Performance Market Rate Rental Housing in downtown Baltimore. It states existing, underutilized commercial structures in the Downtown Management Area can be converted and new apartment buildings will also fall under this tax credit. I’m wondering why this gift to developers was NOT used as a catalyst for low income housing … For the record, I’m NOT really wondering why!!!

  • Gordon Steen

    Interesting story on Hong Kong’s 40 sq ft houses. It is time to get creative:

  • Carol Ott

    People usually associate “the homeless” with people who are somehow unable to take care of themselves, at even the most basic level. This serves a dual purpose: One, to assert the government’s authority over these people, and two, to separate in our minds “them” from “us”…as in…”that could never happen to me, I’m not crazy, a drug addict, an alcoholic, etc.

    The reality, however, is that many homeless people were and are “us”. They have jobs, they have kids — the only difference is…they no longer have a place to call home, outside of their car, a shelter, or campsite. Many of us, if we were honest, could easily fall into the same trap — how many people do we know in our social and professional circles, who are just a paycheck or two away from being “them”?

    These homeless people are ideal candidates for the first of a multi-tiered plan of using the vacants to house the homeless. They’re working, they have an income, they’re paying taxes, and they need little in the way of social services. They’re also potential candidates for homeownership, if the program were structured in a way that favored low-income residents over the developers and the city.

    Other homeless people, those requiring more services and care (and therefore more ongoing support) could be housed in group situations that would allow them a modicum of self-sufficiency, but also the supportive care they need.

    While our city gives away millions in potential tax revenue to developers, for the purpose of building “luxury” condos and apartments, we, as voters and residents, need to demand that our elected officials use our tax dollars wisely. Keep in mind, it’s far cheaper (and therefore less of our tax money) to prevent homelessness than to clean up after someone’s fallen into the system of poverty.

    • Steven Parke

      One of the serious parts of this is to educate people how to maintain a property. I agree we should and can do more, but Baltimore has a notorious track record of getting people into housing that have no sense of how to maintain a property or be a decent neighbor. That is typically what causes conflict between those who are owners and those who not.

      • Carol Ott

        Agreed. I have a few neighbors (some of them are even homeowners, not renters) who couldn’t maintain their way out of a paper bag, never mind take care of a home. They’re also godawful neighbors, better suited to living in a rural area where the next-door neighbor is three to five miles away.

        However, I’m not sure how you could structure a “how to be a good neighbor” class without it being downright insulting to the participants.

  • Cindy Walsh

    The most important piece to consider is that all of these developers are already required to provide these low-income housing units as per already received tax breaks….they would be meeting their obligation by simply doing what we need done.

    What the city is doing in giving yet another tax break for providing housing that needs to be there is ignoring these previous development obligations!!!

    • Anonymous

      Low income properties in downtown would drive young families out of the city altogether. Horrible idea. Developing the city and growing business isnt going to happen by bringing in low income residents to the most desirable parts of the city.

  • Matthew

    Vacants need allot of $$$ for materials, diligent work, construction skills…and many are still privately owned (therefore whoever moves in would simply be a squatter)…those are the 4 reasons that most homeless would not be able to live in the vacant buildings

  • Barbara Samuels

    Everyone always suggests this, but it has already been tried in Baltimore over the period 1970-1994 and was a failure. The City sold vacant houses to the housing authority to rehab as public housing. About 2,900 houses were rehabbed and rented as public housing. The vast majority were in the poorest and still declining neighborhoods where there was no other demand for the properties — by definition that is where long term abandoned houses are located. By 1998, many were vacant and boarded again and HABC was starting to demolish them. At this point, only about 900 (out of 2900) are still in use and those neighborhoods have emptied out. What a waste! Had the money been used instead to create affordable housing in stable neighborhoods with functioning housing markets, those units would still be providing affordable housing today, and we might not have as much homelessness.

  • Edward Ericson Jr

    OK, Paris has about 2.2 million residents. 190k homeless would be like 8 percent. It’s a whole city in itself. Can’t be right.

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