Baltimore County faces challenges in affordable housing

Baltimore County faces challenges in affordable housing

Baltimore County faces challenges in affordable housing

In suburban Baltimore County, the issue of making affordable housing available to more families looms large, as tougher requirements from the federal government are about to kick in and the county prepares for new political leadership. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

The next Baltimore County executive will be responsible for fulfilling a promise made by the current one: Enticing developers to build 1,000 homes for low-income families.

County officials say they are making progress toward they pledge they made two years ago to spend $30 million to attract developers, to rehabilitate existing affordable homes and to help families move to more prosperous neighborhoods.

They have hit the targets outlined in the first two years of the agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development: Build 20 units and have 270 more in the approval process. But the requirements now get much much steeper: By the end of this year, 150 units must be built, followed by 100 per year for the next eight years.

Advocates for affordable housing credit officials for their work so far, but express concern that they might not be fully prepared as the tougher standards kick in.

“We’re encouraged by the county’s efforts to make the conciliation agreement work,” says Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, one of several advocacy groups that’s monitoring the county’s efforts. “We’re concerned about institutionalizing the practices to make the agreement work going forward.”

Hill noted that the agreement was structured with relatively modest targets in the first few years to give the county time to develop the policies needed to overcome longstanding practices.

“We’re concerned about whether the county can meet the rigorous benchmarks in the future,” he says.

HUD says the county is on track.

“Our relationship with Baltimore County is ongoing and productive,” HUD regional spokeswoman Nika Edwards said in a statement. “The county is on track with its current units constructed, and we are continuing an ongoing planning process for the remaining units.”

The county made the agreement with HUD in 2016 to settle complaints that the county’s spending on affordable housing catered to low-income senior citizens, who are mainly white, instead of younger families, which are more often not white.

Since announcing the conciliation agreement two years ago, county officials have been working to meet their obligations.

A total of 330 units have been approved for partial county financing, and 220 more are in the pipeline, according to county planning director Andrea Van Arsdale.

Fifty-four families are enrolled in Mobility Counseling, a program that offers guidance and support for families who want to move from poorer communities to more affluent communities.

“We’re meeting and exceeding the goals,” Van Arsdale says. “Our hope is as these units come online, it will be a seamless integration.”

The county reached the settlement with HUD under County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, and he has supported the planning staff’s efforts.

But the Democrat is moving on at the end of his term in December — he’s running for governor — and it will be up to his successor to fulfill the county’s end of the bargain.

The candidates now running to succeed Kamenetz — Democrats Vicki Almond, Jim Brochin and Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Republicans Pat McDonough and Al Redmer Jr. — have staked out widely varying positions on the HUD agreement and the new housing policies.

Olszewski, of Dundalk, has expressed the strongest support for the deal, saying it’s a course correction for the problematic housing policies of the past.

“We put ourselves in a position to have this agreement because we haven’t done the right things,” he said.

McDonough, a state delegate from Middle River, calls the deal “an unfair edict,” and says he’d file a lawsuit to invalidate it.

“There isn’t any question that affordable housing and the transference of poverty from Baltimore City to Baltimore County has had an impact on our taxpayers and the quality of life in our neighborhoods, there’s no question,” McDonough said. “I stand by that. Other candidates do not have the nerve or guts to say that, but I will.”

Olszewski is the only candidate to support a part of the agreement that requires the county to consider a law that would prohibit landlords from blanket policies against accepting the federal housing vouchers commonly called Section 8.

The County Council last year considered and rejected the prohibition, called the HOME Act. But the HUD agreement requires the council to consider it again in future years.

“Once you get beyond the rhetoric and fear-mongering and actually engage in a conversation, people are more open to what we are trying to accomplish,” Olszewski said.

Almond, a county councilwoman from Reisterstown, says “housing inequity” is a problem in the county, but she isn’t certain that the HUD agreement and the HOME Act are the way to solve the problem. She voted against the HOME Act last year.

Almond and other council members were frustrated that Kamenetz struck the agreement without the council’s input.

Kamenetz declined to be interviewed for this story.

Almond suggests taking a fresh look at housing with stakeholders, including apartment owners and managers.

“I just think we can figure it out,” she said. “I think we need to leave the egos at the door and decide how we can do it.”

Brochin, a state senator from Cockeysville, says he’ll uphold the agreement, but he won’t support the HOME Act. He speaks instead of requiring developers to set aside a certain percentage of their housing units for families with low or moderate incomes.

“If we’re going to grant builders the ability to build more in certain places, then certainly some of it should be dedicated to affordable housing,” Brochin says.

Like McDonough, Redmer, the state insurance commissioner, says he would challenge the HUD agreement in court. He says it was made behind closed doors, without input from the public or county council members.

“As is the case too often in Baltimore County, it was done with a lack of transparency,” Redmer says. “I think the county executive making that kind of unilateral agreement that’s binding for a 10-year period is inappropriate at best.”

The Baltimore County Council is weighing a bill that would require council members to be notified of proposed legal settlements and agreements, and would give members a mechanism for objecting to them.

Redmer says the deal might be discriminatory because it sets parts of the county off-limits for prospective developers and residents. He speaks of creating a long-term housing plan that not would address the needs not only of low-income families, but also of young professionals who he says are often unable to buy homes in the county.

McDonough says he’ll “declare a moratorium on all Section 8 and affordable housing in Baltimore County until I do a county-wide audit of all Section 8 and affordable housing units to establish whether or not they are in compliance with the current standards.”

County residents “have been overused and exploited,” he says. “We have done our part.”

The county has a long and difficult history with affordable housing and racial integration.

Dale Anderson, a Democrat who served as county executive from 1966 to 1974, campaigned on a promise to keep public housing out of the county. He turned down millions of dollars in federal grants rather than build housing that might would have drawn low-income and minority residents to the county.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights described the county at that time as a “white noose” around Baltimore, drawing resources and businesses out of the city.

The county has grown in size and diversity, but remains deeply segregated by race and class. The white population has declined from 85 percent in 1990 to 62 percent today. It took until 2002 for an African-American to be elected to the County Council.

Low-income families — including the 6,200 families that use government housing vouchers — remain concentrated in neighborhoods on the eastern and western sides of the county.

The HUD agreement addresses that concentration by directing new affordable housing units to be built mostly in affluent areas. It allows certain Census tracts a limited number of new units; other tracts are off-limits because they already have low-income families.

The $30 million the county has promised for affordable housing is going to projects such as the Towns at Woodfield, a 62-unit rental townhouse development under construction in Windsor Mill.

It looks like any other residential construction project: a construction trailer, workers in hard hats, and a finished model with nine-foot ceilings, four bedrooms and a mudroom off the back patio.

“It looks like a place where you’d want to live,” says James M. Riggs, a vice president with developer Osprey Property Company of Annapolis.

Riggs says most visitors don’t notice the state “Housing Works” sign, the only clue it’s an affordable housing development. Those who inquire often assume that the units sell or rent at market rates.

The units are to be rented for about $1,300 per month to families who make less than 60 percent of the area’s median income. That’s part of the agreement with the county and state, which provided tax credits and loans. The county issued a $3.5 million loan to Osprey as part of the financing.

Osprey is also building a 72-unit apartment complex in Dundalk called Merritt Station. Some of those apartments will be “market units,” rented at market rates. Others are to be set aside for families who make between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area’s median income.

Osprey has faced little opposition from neighbors of the Towns at Woodfield and Merritt Station.

Osprey took over the Towns at Woodfield from another developer that had received approval to build and sell the townhomes but backed out.

At Merritt Station, the principal concerns from the community centered on the fate of a feral cat colony on the site, and whether a nearby cemetery would be affected.

But other affordable housing projects can face stiff opposition.

In Owings Mills, a proposed 72-unit apartment complex, Red Run Station, ended up in court last year after opponents filed a lawsuit to block the project.

Units are to rent for $750 to $1,410 per month. The opponents — several neighbors and a business group, the Owings Mills Corporate Roundtable — said the apartments were not a good fit for the area, could bring down property values and would conflict with the county’s master plan, which designates the area as an employment zone.

The case was dismissed and the project has moved forward.

Officials with the development company, Enterprise Housing Corp., declined to be interviewed about the complex. CEO Chickie Grayson told The Daily Record last year that the apartments would “provide an opportunity for those who work in the community to live in the community.”

Van Arsdale, the county planning director, says it’s an unfortunate reality that some people fear and oppose affordable housing.

“There is a resistance to change,” she says. “We have to deal with that always.”

Van Arsdale says she hopes that once people see the modern style of affordable housing — well-designed, well-maintained townhouses and apartments, not the older image of government-owned, poorly maintained projects — they’ll come around.

“People will see this brand new apartment complex, that looks great, is well-managed,” she says. “We’re hoping five years from now, it will just be part of the community.”

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