A chronicle of low-income families in
Baltimore trying to afford rent

What would your life be like if you had to work two jobs just to be able to afford rent? Would you be happy? Would you be able to succeed?

That's the reality of life for many families in Baltimore.



Marcus is a sixteen-year-old high school student from Baltimore. He plays varsity basketball and has made the honor roll every quarter since his sophomore year. His academic achievements and basketball skills have sparked the interest of scouts at the University of Maryland. Marcus dreams of playing Division I basketball to help pay for his college education.



Marcus lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with his mom and sister. His mom works two jobs, just make ends meet. Marcus hopes that his academic achievements and outstanding sports skills will open the doors for him to move up in life. After all, he has made smart choices and has done things the right way.



But sometimes life happens. Marcus's mom lost one of her jobs a few months back. It has been a rough couple of months for the family. They're unable to afford their living expenses and fell behind on their rent. As a result, a judge ordered the family to evict the apartment and Marcus is now homeless.

The Income Gap

Median household income in Baltimore
$3,273 per month
Avg. rent for 2BR apt.
$1,214 per month
% of the population living in poverty
Either homeless or at risk
1 in 3
1 in 3 people

Marcus's story isn't a fictitious narrative. It is the reality of thousands of Baltimore families. Almost 1/3 of the city's population is either homeless or at risk of being homeless, and according to U.S. census data over 23% of the city's population lives in poverty. A basic financial rule of thumb is that people shouldn't spend more than 30% of their income on rent or housing. This is virtually impossible for over 1/3 of households in Baltimore. According to Rent Jungle's data, the average cost of rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Baltimore is $1,214 (U.S. avg. is about half of that or $616), while 120 of 201 neighborhoods in the census data have a median household income of less than $3,272 a month. This means that most of those people spend between 37% and 92% of their combined household income on rent alone.

* 2 job minimum wage income refers to a full-time and a part-time job. Salary is calculated for 40 and 20 hour work weeks at Maryland's minimum wage rate of $8.25/hour.

Vacant Buildings


In the meantime, there are thousands of vacant properties around Baltimore. Entire city blocks are abandoned, boarded, and left to decay. Initiatives Like "Vacants to Value" have gained national recognition, but they almost exclusively focus on developing for-profit and expensive residential units that further displace low-income families like Marcus's by increasing rent costs in surrounding areas.

Based on studies of similar cases in Philadelphia and Ohio, Baltimore's estimated 31,000 vacant and abandoned properties cost the city around $17.1M in direct maintenance costs and $1.55M in tax revenue each year. Additionally, there's an average cost of increased policy and fire services of $1,472 annually for each vacant property.

New vacant properties each month between 10/1990-12/2016

Community Land Trusts


The challenge of vacant properties in Baltimore might be an opportunity in disguise. Vacant properties present an ideal opportunity for conversion into Community land trusts (CLTs). CLTs are non-profit, community-based organizations designed to ensure community stewardship of the land. CLTs can be used for many types of development (including commercial and retail), but are primarily used to ensure long-term housing affordability for people like Marcus's family. The trust acquires land and maintains its ownership. Prospective homeowners enter a long-term, renewable lease instead of a traditional sale.

When the homeowners sell, they earn only a portion of the increased property value. The remainder is kept by the trust to ensure affordability for future low-to-moderate-income families. The Baltimore Housing Roundtable is proposing a city-wide CLT initiative known as the 20/20 vision. It outlines a plan that will revitalize current vacant properties and requires two annual investments of $20 million in city funds—the first committed to community-based jobs to deconstruct and green vacant properties, and the second committed to permanently maintain affordable housing. This $40M investment could still result in a surplus of over $20M annually for the city. The following visualization shows how.

Baltimore's 2016 Budget including 20/20 plan

Cost of vacant properties
$64M Annually
Cost of 20/20 vision
$40M Annually
Potential Surplus
$24M Annually

You can help
the next Marcus

© Copyright Roberto Osorio