In the last 10 years, the number of homeless individuals has decreased in Maryland by 40%. But, as a pandemic rages on, stifling economic growth and closing shelters, individuals in need of housing is on the rise. COVID-19 has also created unprecedented real estate vacancy rates in the private sector ― so Maryland lawmakers are looking to marry the two issues and find one solution.
The Maryland Joint Committee to End Homelessness is moving to create a workgroup to figure out how to convert vacant real estate ― like commercial corridors, schools and strip malls ― into housing for both the homeless and the housing insecure. In turn, the Maryland state government would incentivize the transition by negotiating contracts with the vendors to keep businesses afloat.
“It’s a real opportunity to use vacant housing and vacant commercial real estate to address housing for homeless individuals across the state of Maryland,” Committee Co-Chair Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) told Maryland Matters.
In Baltimore, the Lord Baltimore Hotel has already converted into a free quarantine center for the homeless. Since May, the hotel has given rooms to over 600 homeless and COVID-19 positive individuals. The partnership is funded through the $103 million that Baltimore received through the federal CARES Act. But, CARES Act funding is set to expire in December, and officials are looking for more funding.
Due to decreased shelter capacity and impossible conditions for isolation, other counties around the state have also used CARES Act dollars to house individuals testing positive for COVID-19 in hotels, but on a smaller scale.
“Providers indicate a need for the continued use of hotels for quarantining COVID-positive homeless, however funding for such will be problematic in the absence of additional assistance from CARES or other nonlocal funding sources,” officials from Washington County wrote to the Joint Committee on Ending Homelessness.
“In addition, local hotels are seeing an increase in occupancy as travel has increased since the beginning of the pandemic,” they continued. “This may impact the availability of hotel rooms since hotels may be more hesitant to house homeless individuals as their vacancy rates rise, and due to concerns with safety.”
The committee hopes to expand the idea from hotels to commercial real estate spaces, and use the initiative as a more permanent solution to homelessness, rather than just to protect vulnerable populations from COVID-19. Washington said she hopes that the initiative could also address the problem of affordable housing, and that the spaces could be converted not just for the homeless, but for people who are housing insecure.
“We really haven’t seen any state that has taken the approach of retail spaces and adaptive rehousing,” Michael Quillen, a Policy Associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures, told committee members Tuesday. The association compiled information on how states across the nation are sheltering their homeless populations: From New York to Louisiana to California, states have repurposed hotels emptied by the coronavirus as a safe haven for the homeless.
“We would be the leaders, the first to really do this,” Washington said, speaking of using retail spaces in addition to hotels. “It would make a private/public partnership that addresses a problem that we all know that needs to be addressed.”
The committee is in the very beginning stages of the idea. Almost every county in Maryland has answered questions regarding their recommendations to make the initiative successful, and Washington and Co-Chair Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) are looking to bring in housing specialists, manage a workgroup, and eventually create a proposal that could pass the next legislative session.