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Baltimore on the spot as HUD announces fair-housing rule

Baltimore is host to 62 percent of the region's subsidized housing. How that could change:

U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro said it, but 42-year-old Sabrina Oliver has lived it.

Oliver was living with her two children in a crime-infested part of Edmondson Village in 2008 when she was accepted into a voucher program that allowed her to move — first to Parkville in Baltimore County, then to Orchard Beach in Anne Arundel County.

In a year, her daughter's bronchitis cleared up. Her son, who had been struggling in school, became an honors student. And Oliver made her way to media outlets and to Washington to testify about the way moving to a new neighborhood had changed their lives.

Unbeknownst to Oliver, Castro cited her story last week as he issued a long-anticipated regulation intended to push local jurisdictions to take action to reduce segregation — one of several references he made to Baltimore as he placed the region's history of segregation and discrimination in the spotlight.

Critics say the rule is federal intrusion into local land-use policies. Congressional Republicans tried last month to take away funds for implementation, which HUD estimates will cost about $34 million.

But Castro, along with supporters across the country, said the rule shows that HUD is taking steps to remedy its failure to meet its obligations to "affirmatively further fair housing" under the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

"I see this as a helpful tool to address the kind of challenges we've seen in Baltimore, in Ferguson and other cities," Castro told reporters last week. "It's ensuring that people in low-income neighborhoods feel like they have a chance."

The rule, issued in a 377-page document after two years and more than 1,000 comments, reads like a lot of bureaucratese, dropping an analysis of barriers to fair housing that the department of Housing and Urban Development has, in theory, required for decades in favor of a standardized, data-driven, mapped version.

Still, local housing advocates hope the new regulation will put pressure on area jurisdictions to support affordable housing in predominantly white neighborhoods — even as they acknowledge the stiff resistance such efforts have encountered in the past.

Both Baltimore County and the state are the subject of active fair-housing complaints filed with HUD in 2011. A fair-housing suit filed in Baltimore in 1995 was settled in 2012.

At least two affordable developments proposed in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties died after local opposition in the last few years.

"I'd like to think that the availability of data will limit and diminish the excuses for not including affordable housing in predominantly white communities," said Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a party to the Baltimore County complaint.

The rule comes amid broader moves in housing policies.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Fair Housing Act. HUD said it wants to change the way its voucher program works, to encourage families to move to so-called high-opportunity neighborhoods.

Housing agencies in the region have started to work together more closely in recent years, lobbying for higher voucher subsidies and considering a regional program to build new subsidized development.

In 2013, the state changed its award process for low-income housing tax credits. A year later, the General Assembly removed a requirement for local support that often spelled doom for projects.

As a result, according to Dan Pontious, housing policy coordinator for the Opportunity Collaborative, 25 percent of tax credit developments since 2013 have gone to projects in neighborhoods that rank favorably in schools, crime and poverty rates, compared to just 8 percent in the two years prior.

Oliver, a nursing assistant, received the voucher through a mobility program established as part of the settlement to the Baltimore suit.

She said relocating can have a profound impact on a family, and cited the differences she saw in her children, now 19 and 13, once they moved away from a neighborhood marked by shootings, crime and drug dealing to a place with "peace."

"People that are not in the situation cannot fathom how sad it is to be so limited to crime and ignorance," said Oliver. "I owe a lot to the move."

Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for ACLU of Maryland's Fair Housing Project, said she believes there's been a change in the zeitgeist as recognition of the cost of disparities, as well as the way public policies have perpetuated the divisions, is becoming widespread.

"Perhaps as a result of Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, et cetera, we're seeing these patterns of segregation that we had been sort of willfully blind to for so many years, and had almost thought of as being natural or inevitable rather than the product of public policies, and realizing that they're destabilizing and not sustainable," she said.

Baltimore City pioneered housing segregation, dividing the city into white and black blocks with the nation's first segregated zoning ordinance in 1911. After that law was overturned by the Supreme Court, redlining (raising prices for minorities) and racially restrictive deed covenants maintained the divisions.

The 1960s and '70s were marked by white flight to the suburbs after episodes of blockbusting (warning homeowners that minorities were coming to their neighborhoods in order to encourage sales).

Segregation has eased since, due in part to faster growth among African-American, Asian and Hispanic populations. But divisions persist.

The typical average white family in the Baltimore area lives in a neighborhood that is about 75 percent white. The typical African-American household lives in a neighborhood about 62 percent black.

Baltimore — with a poverty rate more than three times that of its suburbs — has 62 percent of the region's subsidized housing and 83 percent of its public housing projects, the Opportunity Collaborative reported.

The new fair-housing rule requires recipients of HUD funding to consider such statistics to develop five-year plans to reduce segregation, racially concentrated areas of poverty and other disparities. Approval of the plan is required as a condition of receiving HUD money, which can be withheld.

HUD also identifies strategies for jurisdictions to consider, including inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to set aside some affordable units in new developments, or the creation of new amenities, such as transit stops.

Patrick Maier, executive director of the Baltimore-based Innovative Housing Institute, called the rule incremental change, especially since it's still not clear how HUD will implement the rule.

Political support remains uncertain.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development declined to comment on the regulation.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican, said his team is evaluating the impact it might have.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, said the county is "committed to providing opportunity for a wide range of affordable housing throughout the county."

"The HUD rule clearly values the importance of local knowledge as we work to expand fair housing opportunities," he said.

Derek Fink, a Republican on the Anne Arundel County Council, said he has not followed the HUD regulation but believes land-use decisions should be local.

Fink sponsored a measure this year to remove a zoning exemption for workforce housing projects earlier this year, and voted against a county housing plan that encouraged affordable developments in high-opportunity areas.

"I think regardless of any money that we may or may not receive from the federal government, land-use decisions belong on the county level," he said. "I don't expect to be bribed by the federal government, to have to be forced to put anything in any specific place because that's where they want it."

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano said he hopes the rule builds support for a state law that would bar landlords from refusing voucher recipients. He said the city will be watching closely as the rule goes into effect.

"The devil is in the details," he said. "This cannot be a mechanism for discouraging investment and, worse, prohibiting investment in the neighborhoods of the city."

Oliver said she's convinced her family's moves changed the future of her 19-year-old son, who graduated from high school last year, on time, and expects to enter the military this month.

She had hoped to see broader change and was surprised — and happy — to learn that sharing her story appeared to nudge policy nationwide.

"I think it's awesome that it's being noticed nationally, that housing needs to be available, clean, nice apartments in areas of opportunity need to be available for all income levels," she said. "I was happy I was mentioned, happy that someone cared enough to remember."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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