For seven years I have been Mayor of Salisbury – my hometown – a fast growing, young and diverse city of 35,000 that anchors the metropolitan area of Salisbury of 428,000 on the Delmarva Peninsula. In May 2021 I returned from a one-year assignment in East Africa. Uncle Sam’s call meant I had to leave my town at a most critical time. I came home with numerous challenges. Some of these I expected: economic recovery, public health protection, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.
Others were a surprise. Our geography, the forces of the pandemic, migration patterns, and the national housing shortage have pushed us into a new crisis: a housing crisis. Right now, a newly hired doctor at TidalHealth Hospital in downtown Salisbury on a competitive salary is signing the mortgage paperwork for her new home in southern Delaware as after months of searching no house in Salisbury was available. Right now, a couple with three children live in East Salisbury and pay $1,850 a month to rent their tiny home — a rate that’s steadily increased year over year. Their wages have not increased accordingly, even though everyone has two jobs. They struggle to earn rent and keep creditors at bay. A mother is currently staying at our HALO Homeless Shelter with her 11-year-old daughter who is on the city’s waiting list for a place to live.
This crisis has many facets. Certainly there is a supply problem; Demand is high and we don’t have nearly enough apartments. Affordability is the victim as rents and real estate prices skyrocket, both becoming unattainable for many. The consequence of sunset protection measures that have kept families in their homes is that more and more of our residents are losing the roof over their heads. We had to act.
Six months ago I announced a comprehensive Here is Home program to reverse the situation. The package, unanimously approved by our city council, hits three levers: housing, affordability and homelessness. Our tool to boost the supply of new housing is a moratorium on permit fees. Yes, governments love their revenues, but what we once held sacred needs to be put on the table when we truly are in a crisis. For a period of 90 days we accepted the submission of new housing developments and waived all water/sewer, construction, utility and other fees. The signed agreements require payment of an upfront payment, which will be repaid in full if developers meet program schedules, resulting in occupied apartments by October 2025.
I can’t tell you what I was expecting but what we received shocked us all. Within 90 days, our 15,000-unit city received applications to build 8,049 more homes, apartments, assisted living units, and townhomes. That means a 60 percent increase in houses and residents. Our total residential real estate valueable base is $800 million. The planning applications submitted equate to an additional $1.4 billion in housing. That’s a 175% increase in home value and a potential 67% increase in our total assessable base.
To improve affordability, we have introduced a guaranteed minimum payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for all affordable housing and waived all property taxes for land owned by Habitat for Humanity and similar organizations. The reaction was immediate. Habitat then bought new lots and just last week began building new homes, including 313 Barclay Street.
As exciting as this is, our fundamental commitment is to the safety and humanity of our citizens in greatest need. In 2017 we started providing permanent accommodation for our chronically homeless. Since then, we’ve accommodated 33 of Wicomico County’s estimated 100 chronically homeless. But many others remain on the road waiting for us to extend coupons or find other accommodations for them. As a result, we are building Anne Street Village – a village of 24 temporary shelters for our chronically homeless neighbors who we are working to find permanent housing. They are offered jobs through our Way to Work job program and receive intensive case management from social workers.
It is my hope that our program will not only change the course of the Salisbury housing crisis, but also provide a template that other Maryland communities can adapt to their conditions. In the coming year, Maryland leaders must determine what they are willing to do to alleviate the housing crisis, affordability crisis and homelessness crisis we are witnessing from the East Coast to Baltimore to western Maryland. Time will tell if our crisis is indeed resolved, but I am confident that our response will bring much-needed relief and ultimately help more people say ‘Here is Home’ of Salisbury.
Jake day ([email protected]) is Mayor of Salisbury and President of the Maryland Municipal League.