It was bad enough that the Baltimore County Council created bad policy and bad precedent when it blocked construction of new affordable housing in the Rosedale community this week. What was worse was how it was done, in such transparently bad faith. This decision wasn't the result of a rational discussion about how to meet the housing needs of the county's growing population of low-income residents. Rather it was the raw expression of a universal cry among fearful homeowners: "Not in my back yard!"
The council's pretense that this was somehow about poor public transportation, overcrowded schools or lack of access to a grocery store will fool no one. If those were the major concerns, council members might have focused their energies on rectifying those problems, which also affect the quality of life of those living in the area now. The fact that they did not suggests that what's really behind opposition is a desire to pretend that the county can erect barriers to keep the poor out.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the poor are already there — and there's no way to change that. Instead of trying to stop poor people from moving to the community by refusing to allow developers to build safe and affordable housing for them, the council would have done far better to cooperate with state officials and local nonprofits to smooth the entry of newcomers to the neighborhood and make sure they felt welcomed. Council members are deceiving themselves and their constituents if they believe they can stop this trend; what is happening in Rosedale is part of a much larger, long-term demographic shift that can only be managed, not prevented.
A Sun report last month documented the rapid growth of the low-income population in Baltimore's suburbs, where poor county residents — defined as people earning less than $23,500 annually for a family of four — now outnumber poor residents in the city. Over the last 25 years the low-income population in Baltimore's surrounding jurisdiction has grown five times faster than in the city, and that process is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This is a regional challenge that no single jurisdiction can meet on its own.
Given the situation, "just saying no" isn't enough. All the surrounding counties need to develop practical plans to deal with their growing populations of the poor, including the increasing number of homeless individuals and families who have been squeezed out of the housing market by high rents and rising home prices. Many of these people were living paycheck to paycheck before the 2008 recession, and they fell into poverty after losing a job or suffering a major financial setback. At the same time, the slow economic recovery that followed has left them unable to dig themselves out. Every jurisdiction in the region has a stake in supporting programs aimed at getting such people off the streets and into permanent housing.
To his credit, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz supported the proposed 50-unit development. In an interview with The Sun's editorial board today, he said the council was sending the "wrong message" by blocking the project and that the county needs to do a better job of providing workforce housing in all of its communities. He said he will consider setting aside money in future county budgets to support affordable housing projects, and if the state fails to enact legislation preventing landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who list subsidized housing vouchers as part of their income, he will consider pursuing it on the county level. But unfortunately, he does not have veto power over the council's resolution.
Rosedale residents who applauded their representatives this week for what they saw as a principled stand may as well have cheered them for sticking their heads in the sand. The suburbanization of poverty over the last four decades is a reality that cannot be avoided. Poor people are already a significant proportion of the regional population — approximately 8 percent of suburban residents currently live below the federal poverty line — and they are not going to magically disappear no matter how long county officials persist in refusing to acknowledge their presence.
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