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December 3, 2022

Hopkins alum discusses urban housing

By ASHLEY EMERY | April 10, 2014

Last night, Peter Engel, a Hopkins alumnus and deputy commissioner for Baltimore Housing, discussed housing issues within the city and the need for affordable housing in a presentation to the College Democrats and other interested students. He analyzed how the city’s evolution and population changes have led to vacant housing and gentrification issues.

Since its population peak in the mid-1950s, Baltimore has lost approximately one-third of its population in conjunction with its decline as an industrial base. Ever since, poverty and population loss have befallen the city and created huge volumes of vacant housing. In the city itself, the median annual household income is $40,800, as compared to the statewide level of $73,000.

“Maryland is rich, but Baltimore is poor. If you look at cities, race and wealth correlate; we’re a very poor city,” Engel said. “Another problem was the wealth flight in Baltimore. If you had money you left because parts of the city were declining.”

Another element contributing to the issue of obtaining affordable housing is that the median family size is steadily decreasing. Engel explained how, in theory, you should not pay more than a third of your income for housing.

Through the fair market rents in the Baltimore-Towson metro area, the price for a one-bedroom apartment should be $1,000 per month, which an individual with an annual income of $40,000 can afford. Engel explained how, despite the increase in Maryland minimum wages to $10.10 per hour, individuals with this annual income would only earn $20,200 per year and would not be able to afford the aforementioned housing unless they had a two-income household. Many single-parent households — as are prevalent in Baltimore — cannot afford housing.

An issue that uniquely affects Baltimore is the presence of row houses.

“We have the highest percentage of row housing in the country; we have a very limited variety of housing, which is a problem when you try to get people to move into the city,” Engel said.

The central point that Engel emphasized was that Baltimore cannot just utilize vacant houses as free or affordable housing. Though there are about 16,000 vacant and un-occupiable buildings in Baltimore, you cannot just match an excess of people in need with vacant houses, which are predominantly privately owned. 

“People say, ‘you’ve got homeless people and vacant housing, can’t you just put them in there?’” he said. “No. You’d have to take it with eminent domain, fix it up, operate it and keep it running. How would you pay for all of that?” 

Engel dispelled this red herring further by explaining how, though there are many vacant houses, they are often in unsafe neighborhoods, and new affordable housing should not be clustered in those locations.

To combat these issues, the Vacants to Value plan has been implemented.

The plan aims to control and demolish properties in distressed areas as well as to repurpose the space for storm water, farming and other non-housing functions. In moderately strong areas, multiple strategies are implemented to build off of pre-existing strengths. The plan’s outlines start from areas near amenities or job centers and expand from there.

“It is very adventurous of the mayor to implement it,” Engel said. “It’s better to demolish and use these vacant space for other purposes, like urban agriculture.”

However, Engel stressed that politics are a factor in limiting the success of efforts to provide affordable housing.

“I am perpetually disappointed with people in charge for not doing enough, though there are limits to what those in charge can do,” he said. “They are so hamstrung by other budget issues, and there are cuts in urban housing development.”

Engel did applaud President Daniels’ efforts to revive the Charles Village area through the Homewood Community Partners Initiative.

Students in the Hopkins College Democrats were intrigued by Engel’s presentation and how his undergraduate experience influenced his unconventional career trajectory.

“I was a physics major, and ended up in law school because I was interested in policy as well. I was first in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, then I was a practicing lawyer and I am now doing stuff I have absolutely no training in at all,” Engel said.

Carrie Resnick, co-president of the Hopkins College Democrats, was enthused by Engel’s presentation.

“I thought he presented a lot of new information and I learned a lot about how operating and capital elements influence housing projects. I also think it was great to learn about affordable housing because it is connected to so many other issues that we care about like minimum wages and ... how policy is implemented,” she said.

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