A city councilman wants to end single-family zoning in Baltimore. Here’s what that means.

A city councilman has proposed a significant change to the city’s zoning laws that could spur a burst of new investment and home renovation in Baltimore, though some neighborhoods won’t be affected.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey wants to end single-family zoning and adjust off-street parking requirements, opening up much of the city to multi-unit housing. As long as homes meet certain size requirements, they could be renovated and turned into two, three or even four households under a bill that Dorsey introduced called the Abundant Housing Act.


Five other council members co-sponsored the bill, which was referred to the economic and community development committee.

Some people in Baltimore’s real estate industry said this bill would incentivize developers to renovate more vacant homes, create affordably priced rental units and diversify neighborhoods, but one developer questioned its impact on Black neighborhoods. Dorsey said his bill would not trump agreements or contracts that some neighborhoods, like Roland Park, have in place banning multi-unit homes.


Converting single-family homes to multi-unit buildings is already allowed in some residential neighborhoods, Dorsey told his fellow council members, and those neighborhoods are predominantly Black and lower-income. Wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods don’t allow multi-unit homes, which effectively excludes low-income people and perpetuates racial segregation, he said.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey wants to end single-family zoning and adjust off-street parking requirements, opening up the entire city to multi-unit housing. As long as homes meet certain size requirements, they could be renovated and turned into two, three or even four households under a bill that Dorsey introduced Monday night called the Abundant Housing Act.

“If you live in Sandtown [Winchester] in a 2,000-square foot house, that house can be turned into two or three apartments,” Dorsey said. “But if you live in Hamilton, in a house that is 2,000 square feet or 3,000 square feet or 4,000 square feet for that matter, that house can never ever, under any circumstances be more than one housing unit.”

Currently, the city’s zoning map looks like a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of pieces of different sizes, shapes and rules on what can — and can’t — be built. Different pockets of multi-unit zoning exist throughout the city, largely near the city’s core and in East and West Baltimore, but much of the city does not allow anything other than single family homes to be built.

Much of Northeast Baltimore, particularly along the Harford Road corridor which Dorsey represents, does not allow multi-unit zoning.

“I live in a great neighborhood and I would love for more people to have the opportunity to live in my neighborhood,” Dorsey said at Monday’s council meeting. “The Abundant Housing Act reverses the trend of manufacturing scarcity and codifying segregation, deciding where we can have housing and where we can’t have more housing throughout Baltimore City.”

Introduced Monday night, Dorsey’s bill was endorsed by the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, a nonprofit born out of a housing discrimination lawsuit against the city of Baltimore. The Housing Partnership administers housing vouchers for thousands of low-income families.

“Intentional policies, like this bill, promote the creation of diverse communities and are key to providing our city with yet another mechanism to dismantle exclusionary zoning,” Housing Partnership Executive Director Adria Crutchfield said in a statement.

Baltimore’s population has been declining for decades and there are at least 15,000 vacant and abandoned homes in the city, but Dorsey said there’s actually a housing shortage, particularly for middle-income earners. He pointed to a 2020 report commissioned by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes living in the city, that studied demand and market trends. The report said Baltimore could reverse its population decline if it had the right mix of housing available.


“If enough housing could be constructed or renovated, at least 5,300 households could be added to Baltimore City each year over the next five years,” the report concluded.

Alexander Cruz is a partner at CR of Maryland, which has bought and renovated hundreds of homes in Baltimore in recent years, primarily targeting vacant homes, selling them to investors and managing them as rentals. He said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Dorsey’s bill.

“There’s such a shortage of affordably priced, rental housing available, especially one or two bedroom units, that this would almost instantly relieve,” Cruz said.

Take a 1,200-square-foot vacant rowhome in a neighborhood zoned only for single-unit homes, Cruz said. Maybe it could rent for $1,800 a month. But if the renovation costs are too high, no one will buy it and the house will continue to sit vacant. That same hypothetical house could be split into a one-bedroom apartment that rents for $800 and a two-bedroom apartment that rents for $1,250.

With that extra $350 a month in rental income, it makes more financial sense to buy and renovate the property, Cruz said, which also increases the housing supply and creates more affordable rentals.

Khalil Uqdah of Charm City Buyers said he’s currently working on a large, beautiful home with an English basement, but off-street parking requirements mean it can only be a single unit.


“It’s perfectly structured to have a separate unit on the basement level and then have the owner live on the top level, which is three floors — plenty of space,” Uqdah said. “Unfortunately, we were unable to rezone this one. So when that happens, the value of the property goes down.”

Josh Savage is a real estate agent and wholesaler who said he’s helped investors buy hundreds of houses in Baltimore through his wholesaling business. More rental units means more rental income, Savage said, and more rental income means more investment in Baltimore.

“You’ll see communities that have really fallen apart start to get pieced back together because now there is a reason for somebody to invest there,” Savage said.

China Boak Terrell is one developer who doesn’t agree that Dorsey’s bill will be positive. She is the CEO of a nonprofit called the American Communities Trust. Baltimore isn’t hemorrhaging population because of a lack of housing, she said, but because of violence, inadequate schools, disinvestment and low incomes.

The city has tens of thousands of homes that are either vacant or abandoned, she said, and the reason they’re not being lived in is because of a lack of demand. Dorsey’s bill would trample self-determination by neighborhoods, Boak Terrell said, and it could actually destabilize Black neighborhoods by deprioritizing homeownership.

“This bill is framed as a righteous crusade against segregation, but in fact it will be very harmful for Black wealth,” Boak Terrell said.


Shay Mokai thinks the bill would provide a more affordable path to homeownership. He runs Infinite Homes, which primarily buys and renovates vacant homes in Baltimore. Forget developers, he said, and think about the effect this would have on people who can’t afford a home — especially with inflation.

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This policy change would allow a first-time homebuyer to add a unit or two to a house and help them pay down their mortgage, Mokai said. A grandmother living alone and struggling to pay her bills could turn her house into a duplex and stay in her neighborhood.

“I think it’s genius,” he said.

By allowing more types of housing throughout the city, Dorsey said this bill would help address Baltimore’s history of racist housing policies, which at one time codified racially segregated neighborhoods and allowed exclusionary neighborhoods throughout the city.

Guilford in North Baltimore was developed a century ago by the Roland Park Co., which designed its neighborhoods to exclude Black, Jewish and Catholic people. Guilford and other Baltimore neighborhoods used “racial covenants” in deeds that specifically barred Black people from moving in.

Tim Chriss, legal counsel to the Guilford Association, said his neighborhood has long repudiated those racist policies and has grown more diverse. Today, people of all backgrounds and religions move to Guilford, attracted partly because the neighborhood only allows single-family homes, he said, and Dorsey’s proposal would not change that.


Chriss said neighborhoods nearby, including Roland Park, Northwood and Homeland, all have agreements barring multi-unit homes.

“[Residents] want the stability of knowing that it’s a single-family residential neighborhood and that they’re not going to wake up one day with a contractor next door chopping a home up into four units,” he said.