Policy Blog

Hearing Their Voices: Our Perspective

By Lydia Dubois and Maleka Walker

As students of social policy at Johns Hopkins, we often discuss what it means to live in a city like Baltimore. We read research reports, books, and current news articles about overlooked populations and the policies that affect them, but we rarely have opportunities to hear from community members firsthand. In planning and attending the 21st Century Cities Initiative’s “Hearing Their Voices” forum, we had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in helping convene an array of community stakeholders to discuss current events and policies. On April 20th, we heard from this diverse set of politicians (notably, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore City Council President), community organizers, professors, police officers, organization leaders, and young people.

Held near the two-year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and ensuing civil unrest in Baltimore, the event’s conversations addressed the importance of listening to Baltimore’s young people and adolescents. The national, and mostly negative, media attention on Baltimore from two years ago is long gone (save for fly-in, anniversary coverage of the unrest), but one of the lasting legacies of the tragic events from April 2015 is a recognition of the role young people should play in creating policies that support their own development and desires for their own community.

Change-making conversations can be uncomfortable. Through the windows of the historic American Brewery building, where speakers discussed research and policy affecting the surrounding community, we could see the vacancies of East Baltimore we’d observed and documented through class fieldwork the day before. As Hopkins students studying the sociology of the city and learning about social policy, we often wonder how we can best study the root causes of inequality in the city and use this information to enact change. Seeking to gain education and credentials from a university that has a long and complicated relationship with Baltimore, we appreciate events such as “Hearing Their Voices” because they are honest, they welcome differing viewpoints, and they field questions and concerns. They’re starts, but not solutions in themselves.

We are students of Hopkins and students of Baltimore. Currently enrolled in a class titled “Baltimore as an Urban Laboratory,” we’ve performed fieldwork, used ArcGIS mapping software, read studies and firsthand accounts, and participated in class discussions on divestment and displacement in East Baltimore. The event presented us with a unique opportunity to expand our sources of information and to hear from Baltimore natives about their wishes for their city.

As Dr. Stefanie DeLuca shared her research findings that emphasized the resiliency of Baltimore youth, we were inspired by the personal narrative that Randall, a Baltimore native whose story was featured in Dr. DeLuca’s research, shared to begin the evening. He spoke of his own difficulties growing up in Baltimore and continuing to provide for his family despite barriers such as lack of transportation and scheduling demands at work. Kirsten Allen, community organizer and lead visionary of Meraki Community Uplift, highlighted the unifying possibilities of grassroots community development. Kareem, another young person featured in Dr. DeLuca’s research, offered a unique perspective on the city, and shared some common desires for the city’s development, such as recreational centers. All respondents shared a common thread: a strong identification and love for their city.

Their stories emphasized that we must ensure that we are not only hearing the voices of youth, but also acknowledging and supporting their visions. How do we ensure their visions for change are supported? How do we support youth to trust their own voices in enacting policies?

A current opportunity presents itself through Baltimore City Council’s new $12 million Children and Youth Fund, which will be one of the largest individual grant-makers for youth programming in the city. Co-chair of the Youth Fund’s community task force, Adam Jackson, spoke about the need for grant-makers to concentrate funding to smaller community organizations, allowing them to build their own capacities. This was one of the major themes of the evening: taking what we learn about Baltimore’s concerns and needs and empowering communities to facilitate their own growth and development.

Another speaker, Lieutenant Steve Olson of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), spoke of creating positive relationships between the police and youth of Baltimore. The BPD’s fraught relationship with the community and youth in particular was one of the enduring themes of April 2015. Lt. Olson emphasized that it starts with police officers recognizing those they protect and serve as people, as regular kids, instead of a type of offender, juveniles. Referencing his work with the Inner Harbor Project, which employs youth as leaders, ambassadors, and mediators to assess their community’s needs and assist in developing models of respect between youth and officers, Lt. Olson shared why he considers himself “the luckiest cop in the world.” Involvement with the organization assists Lt. Olson, and like-minded members of law enforcement, in forming meaningful relationships with youth and modeling effective community policing strategies.

The event was well-attended by young people, including high school students, from across the city. However, one concern addressed by an audience member was the lack of presence of young people from some of the city’s lower-performing high schools. How do we convene everyone effectively? Does hosting an event in East Baltimore fully engage the community? At the moment the question was raised, the American Brewery, located in the heart of East Baltimore, felt secluded. Inside its walls, as we heard discussions of the future of the Children and Youth Fund, and the efforts to secure successful grant partnerships through initiatives such as One Baltimore For Jobs, we wondered about the presence of youth voices in these original conversations.

The Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Task Force, comprised of 39 members including students, nonprofit leaders, and community advocates, gives youth the opportunity to be involved in these discussions. The task force meetings, open to the public, focus on grant-making criteria and methods to ensure that fund money is allocated to best fit the needs of the city. A main focus of the task force is to reach a consensus on how the money can best be used to “strengthen community-based organizations and intermediaries that reflect the city’s demographic makeup and have successful histories working and partnering with the communities they serve.”

As the task force is halfway through its planning process, we have high hopes for it to focus funding on community organizations and listen to youth voices in planning for fund allocation. The sixth meeting to discuss the future of the fund will convene on May 2nd, 2017. Students, community organizers, and anyone who wishes to lend a voice are urged to attend. Meeting details can be found here. We hope to see you there.

As interns with 21CC involved in the event planning process, we were able to see the original ideas for the discussions come to life, determined by speakers’ personal experiences and roles in the Baltimore community. Danielle Torain, Senior Consultant at Frontline Solutions, formerly the Program Coordinator for the One Baltimore for Jobs grant, highlighted that forums like these are a start, but not an end. We agree. In order to move forward, we must reach out to youth who lack institutional support to participate in these conversations. These conversations can be uncomfortable, forcing us to confront the times youth voices weren’t adequately heard or utilized to create change.

Among us and our peers are future policy analysts, changemakers, and activists. “Hearing Their Voices” urges us to continue to educate ourselves about Baltimore while learning how to listen to the needs of the community. Our hope for the new Children and Youth Fund is that the organizations it funds reflect youth’s wishes for their city, and that policymakers both hear, and listen to youth voices.

Lydia Dubois is a junior from New York City majoring in Sociology with a minor in Social Policy. Maleka Walker is a sophomore from Atlanta majoring in Public Health with a minor in Social Policy.


The True “American Carnage:” Trump’s HUD Budget

by Eva Rosen & Philip Garboden

President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 slashes up to $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For those of us who have spent years debating the pros and cons of HUD programs, the across-the-board cuts seem surprisingly non-ideological, save for the top-level goals of smaller government and a weaker safety net. The proposed cuts will affect both sides of one of the most passionate housing policy debates: public housing and voucher programs designed to replace public housing.

There is still uncertainty and even fewer details as to the size and scope of the proposed cuts as Congress has yet to weigh in. But taken at face value, the President’s proposal is likely to be devastating for the many Americans already struggling to afford housing. This moment of uncertainty provides an opportunity to step back from the sometimes-vitriolic debate over policy alternatives to consider a more fundamental issue: the dire and ever increasing need for subsidized housing of any kind.

The Affordability Crisis

Trump’s proposed cuts come at a time when cities are experiencing a crisis of affordability. Housing today is often simply too expensive for people to afford. In Baltimore for example, 57 percent of all renters are “rent burdened,” meaning that they pay over 30 percent of their income in rent. Sending so much of your earnings to your landlord means having less money to spend on essentials like food, transportation, and childcare.

This problem is not limited to the poor. While individuals below the poverty line have struggled for decades to afford their housing, more and more working and middle class renters are also becoming burdened. For example, in 1998, 44 percent of Baltimore renters earning between $20,000 and $40,000 per year were rent burdened. By 2013, this number had jumped to over 70 percent. While researchers disagree on whether rents have outpaced income or incomes have lagged behind rents, the reality is that Trump’s cuts are being proposed at a time when the need for housing assistance is the highest it’s been for decades.

Public Housing and Housing Vouchers

No matter what else they do or do not accomplish, two of the biggest housing assistance programs in the U.S.—public housing and vouchers—directly and tangibly address the affordability crisis for poor renters fortunate enough to receive them.

Public housing was created with the intent to alleviate slum conditions of overcrowding and hazardous housing. But by the 1990s, much of it was falling apart due to a lack of funding and poor maintenance. Troubled developments became notorious for concentrating poor families in segregated, disadvantaged neighborhoods with high unemployment, high crime, and failing schools.

In the 1990s, HUD began shifting away from the high-rise towers of public housing to housing vouchers, also known as Section 8, where families pay 30 percent of their income in rent and use their voucher in any affordable unit in the private market. While in the late 1980s Baltimore had 18,000 units of public housing, today there are just 10,000. During the same period, the number of vouchers has gone from 4,000 to 14,000.

Nonetheless, public housing is an essential component of the subsidized housing stock. Properly designed, appropriately sited, professionally managed, and adequately funded public housing can succeed, particularly for the elderly and those with disabilities for whom market-based solutions are few and far between. Even in less-than-ideal circumstances, the housing stability and income security provided by public housing can have incredibly positive effects when the alternative is a life of residential instability and eviction.

Vouchers can be an essential tool to help families move out of distressed neighborhoods and into those with good schools near higher paying jobs. We know that those who are lucky enough to receive aid see tremendous benefits. For one, vouchers decrease homelessness. One man who we got to know in the course of our research, a 55-year-old man with HIV, finally got off the voucher waiting list and now has a safe place to live instead of taking shelter under a bridge. A woman who we met got a voucher, moved into a stable home, and was able to regain custody of her children. Other families report simply being able to put food on the table and make healthier meals. And vouchers can help families move to better neighborhoods where there are good schools for their children, and increased job opportunities. We know that the neighborhood a person lives in has profound effects on their education, employment, and lifetime earnings.

But neither form of housing assistance comes close to meeting the demand – only about one in four qualified renters actually benefits from a housing subsidy nationwide. Analyses suggest that the proposed cuts in the Trump budget plan would slash funding for public housing by 30 percent, meaning huge reductions in maintenance budgets. Here in Baltimore, the legacy of previous budget cuts has resulted in a public housing stock plagued with maintenance backlogs, cockroach and bedbug infestations, rampant rodent problems, mold, lead paint, and broken elevators that leave elderly and disabled residents with long waits just to get down the stairs to go to the grocery store or the doctor. Cutting budgets for routine maintenance ends up costing more in the long run. But even more importantly, these problems pose real health dangers for residents. There is a certain cruelty in cutting maintenance funds for a program that houses some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. Public housing is a program that experts agree is desperately in need of more money for maintenance, not less.

When it comes to cutting vouchers, estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 voucher households could lose their subsidies under Trump’s proposal. Recipients of housing vouchers are a vulnerable population too, facing severe adversity: 43 percent have children, 28 percent have a disability, and 87 percent have incomes under $20,000 a year.

We can’t keep doing more with less

Given these vulnerabilities, any cuts that reduce the number of subsidized units are likely to produce spikes in homelessness. We now have clear evidence that homelessness is above all a problem of affordability and that giving families housing vouchers successfully keeps them off the streets.

Homelessness has declined nationally about 15 percent in recent years, from around 650,000 homeless people on a given night in 2007 to 550,000 in 2016. This reduction is remarkable given the housing collapse during this time period. This positive trend is attributed in part to a rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing strategy adopted by the Obama Administration, which included increased funding for homelessness assistance for vulnerable populations.

Trump’s cuts risk reversing the trends. Baltimore—where in 2015 there were nearly 2,800 homeless people on a given night—is sure to be affected, as are cities like Los Angeles and New York, where one in five people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. live.

In the absence of federal funding, the burden will be shifted to states and local governments to fill in the gaps. In Baltimore, as in other cities, voters have approved the creation of an Affordable Housing Trust, although city action is still needed to identify a source of funding. In the past, states and local governments have shown remarkable resiliency in the face of federal cutbacks, nimbly preserving much of the subsidized stock during the Reagan years. But you can only make soup with the same bone so many times before you’re just eating hot water. With tightening budgets across the board, these programs will be unable to help the increasing number of citizens who desperately need them.

Public housing and vouchers have their strengths and weaknesses. But this budget proposal moves the conversation away from how to make these policies work better for poor Americans, and towards the more straightforward question: How can we keep poor Americans off the streets if we so drastically slash funding for subsidized housing?

Eva Rosen is a postdoctoral fellow with 21CC. Philip Garboden is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins.