Steep increases in rents put squeeze on budgets of Baltimore residents

Published on: August 19, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 25, 2022 3:29 PM EDT

Various people crushed and flattened by giant checks

The radius of Alonzo Washington’s apartment search keeps growing, but the results it turns up are always the same: too expensive.

After a new apartment management company bought his complex in North Baltimore last year, he and other residents received notices that they had to vacate their units so the company could renovate the complex, he said. Those notices thrust Washington and his neighbors into the heart of an acute shortage of affordable housing, with rents spiking beyond the reach of many.

“No matter where you go — you can go to Owings Mills, you can go to Anne Arundel County — they’re all going to be at around the same” amount, Washington said.

After enjoying a few years of retirement from his job as a bank loan officer, Washington, 68, went back to work a few weeks ago to try to save up for the move. He took a job at Amazon, moving large loads of shipments from trucks into the warehouse.

“You have a certain standard that you have already established,” said Washington, who owned a home with his wife for 20 years before moving into their new apartment. But as rents increase, those living standards become harder and harder to maintain.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, median rents for new leases in Baltimore City have increased by 18.8 percent, according to Apartment List, an online listing site.

That increase is on par with the national average: significant rent hikes began across the country in 2021, as people started searching for housing after an earlier pandemic pause. Slowed construction due to supply chain disruptions and worker shortages exacerbated the long-standing mismatch between housing supply and demand. High home sale prices kept would-be buyers competing in the rental market.

Local moratoriums on rent hikes provided relief to many for a while. But when those protections expired with the end of the governor’s COVID-19 state of emergency in July 2021, renters began seeing the sharp increases.

In Baltimore, where it’s estimated that more than half of residents are renters — and in a state where nearly half of all renters are housing cost-burdened (meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on rent) — any rent increase can lead to displacement and exacerbate housing insecurity. This is prompting residents to double up with family members, move into substandard housing or less-safe neighborhoods, and sacrifice other necessities in order to afford rent.

“More than likely, if they move, they’re moving to a less-safe neighborhood, they’re moving to a property that is less well-maintained. You’re sacrificing,” said Tisha Guthrie, a housing organizer with Baltimore Renters United.

High rates of housing vacancy contribute to the problem. Many of the thousands of vacant buildings across Baltimore require substantial rehabilitation or rebuilding to be habitable. Others are in livable condition, but are being kept vacant by private owners.

“The unaffordability issue is exacerbated by this false scarcity of housing,” Guthrie said.

The most dramatic rent increases in Baltimore took place in 2021, according to Apartment List data: rents rose by over 15% in the city last year, compared with 5% so far in 2022. But those figures only reflect increases in new leases, rather than spikes in renewed leases, said Rob Warnock, a research associate at Apartment List.

There is no comprehensive data on the percentage of Baltimore renters who have been hit with a rent increase. But housing advocates say that reports of rent hikes are widespread. Of the thousands who have applied to the United Way of Central Maryland for COVID-19 emergency rental assistance in recent months, about half have seen their rents jump within the past year, according to Scott Gottbreht, the organization’s housing vice president.

The ledgers submitted by landlords to the United Way reflect not only monthly rent increases but fees for pest control, failing to purchase renters’ insurance, and going month to month — even when an annual lease isn’t offered by the landlord, Gottbreht said.

Tenants are in a “hostage situation,” he said, explaining that many don’t have the funds necessary to relocate, especially with some landlords now requiring two months’ rent as a security deposit, or charging high application fees.

High demand also means that landlords can be more selective about whom they rent to, leaving many of those who were hardest-hit financially during the pandemic with few options.

“Tenants may have rent debts on their record, their credit is shot, their savings are depleted and for all those reasons they’re just not going to succeed in trying to find a new unit,” Gottbreht said.

Gottbreht and other advocates are seeing more and more tenants in this situation, as landlords increasingly decline to renew leases with current tenants. Before the pandemic, Baltimore landlords filed around 60 eviction cases per month in city district court against tenants who had stayed past the end of their lease. That number had more than doubled by the second half of 2021, and had nearly quadrupled by May 2022.

Aaron Greenfield, director of government affairs for the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said high costs due to inflation, as well as the moratorium on evictions and rent increases earlier in the pandemic, have left many landlords with a shortfall.

“We told policymakers: If you control our rent, you’re going to create a pipeline of backed-up costs. And this is in part what’s happening,” Greenfield said.

He noted that Baltimore’s median rent increase is lower than that of some other cities, where they have gone up by more than 30 percent — or even 40 percent — since the pandemic started.

Still, the increases have been jarring to many Baltimore residents, in part because median rents had barely budged in the city during the four years prior to the pandemic. And unlike fast-growing cities in the South, where those increases are borne in part by new residents moving from more expensive cities, Baltimore lost thousands of residents between 2010 and 2020.

Housing advocates say that the full impact of rent increases remains to be seen, as federal emergency rental assistance funds continue to keep many tenants in their homes and as residents cycle through whatever safety nets — savings, staying with family and friends, borrowing money — they have to remain housed. But those safety nets tend to erode over time, advocates say, and the emergency assistance funds are quickly running out and expected to be fully depleted by early next year.

Already, homeless services groups are stretched thin.

“It’s frankly virtually impossible past a certain time of day to identify shelter for somebody,” said Kevin Lindamood, president of Health Care for the Homeless, whose organization works to place people in homeless shelters across the city. Every $100 increase in median rent is associated with a 9% increase in the estimated homelessness rate, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The city’s Department of Housing and Community Development “recognizes the challenges families across Baltimore face when it comes to finding quality, affordable housing accessible to schools, shopping, services, and amenities,” said housing commissioner Alice Kennedy in a statement. She added that the city is working to develop larger-scale multifamily buildings, community land trusts, and rental housing operated by nonprofits.

In the meantime, the impacts of rent increases are being felt not just at the lowest end of the rental market, but by those with greater housing stability.

A renter named Abigail, who asked to be identified by her first name only for fear of retaliation by her landlord, remembers fondly the days when it was easy to find a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in Charles Village for $700. Her one-bedroom now costs more than double that, after her landlord raised her monthly rent from $1,325 to $1,495 last year. Abigail makes a steady income at a policy organization, but the increase means that she will remain a renter for longer than she intended.

“I had been saving for a house and it’s just another thing has knocked back my ability to do that,” Abigail said.

She worries for neighbors who are less able than she to bear the rent increases — and for the diversity of the city.

“I just don’t understand how people are expected to stay, and where people are supposed to go,” Abigail said.

Rent hikes are affecting tenants across the state, with increases in median rent over the course of the pandemic over 30% in cities such as Frederick, Salisbury and Rosedale.

When Hawa Smith-Bayo, her husband, and their son moved into their two-bedroom at the Westgate at Laurel apartments in 2015, they paid $1,150 a month — affordable on her salary as a nursing assistant and her husband’s as a repair technician at a furniture company. After a new management company took over the half-century-old garden apartment complex in 2020, the couple said they faced repeated rent increases, despite conditions in the building worsening. Her husband began working nights as an Uber driver and Smith-Bayo took extra work as a hairstylist to afford the extra rent.

But when their landlord told them this spring that their monthly rent would increase come September by another $300, to $1,750 a month, that was the final straw.

Smith-Bayo and nearly 100 of her neighbors have signed a petition not to pay it — and in July, they launched a rent strike. The management company could not be immediately reached for comment.

“We are not getting increases in our jobs, how come the rent is going to increase that way?” said Smith-Bayo. “This is too much, this is a rip off.”

Ryan Little contributed to this report.

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