“America today presents the paradox of a rich country falling apart because of the collapse of its core values. Almost everybody complains, almost everybody aggressively defends their own narrow, short-term interests, and almost everybody abandons any pretense of looking ahead or addressing the needs of others.” -Jeffrey Sachs, America’s Moral Crisis, The Guardian, October 4, 2010
Jeffrey Sachs’ recognition of the loss of core values, indeed compassion, is visible here in Baltimore, where much deeply affordable housing has been lost to demolition, sale, or conversion to other uses. As a community, we have lost the will to ensure that each demolished or sold affordable unit is replaced, resting complacently on the view that it is too difficult to build homes for everyone.
In the name of revitalization, we spend hundreds of millions of scarce affordable housing resources on projects that each result in a net loss of affordable housing. Cumulatively, the loss of affordable housing is massive. Think Uplands, Barclay, Madison Park North as a few examples currently in the news. But this is a regional phenomenon, not limited to the city. Baltimore County and Annapolis have been doing the same thing.
Too often revitalization has come to mean getting rid of the public (or subsidized) housing in the neighborhood without a second thought about the loss of the housing, the people affected, or the revenue stream that it brings. It isn’t just the very poor who are hurt by the loss of assisted housing. In the midst of a deep recession, more and more people struggle to keep up with rent and mortgage payments, but we have less and less truly affordable housing to offer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We should think of affordable housing as an asset that should be preserved. This doesn’t mean it all has to be saved or rebuilt in the same location. When there is too much in one place, the asset can be redeployed and restored in growing communities where affordable housing is often in short supply.
Let’s adopt a “no loss of affordable housing” stewardship ethic. It is possible to make that goal a cornerstone of our efforts to build a better neighborhood, city and region. Are there fiscal and technical obstacles? Certainly. But the real barrier is the lack of will.