Affordable housing proposal for Glen Burnie spurs council fight

A plan to build an affordable housing development in Glen Burnie has ignited a heated debate among members of the Anne Arundel County Council.

Councilman John J. Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican whose district includes the planned Marley Meadows development, spoke out against the plans at a recent County Council meeting, saying low-income residents are likely to bring crime to the area, an assertion quickly dismissed by some of his colleagues.

"What kind of quality person is going to pay a $380 rent?" asked Grasso, who is pushing to stop the project from moving forward. "My constituents in that area aren't convinced these people are going to be able to maintain this property."

In a heated exchange, Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, scoffed at Grasso's assertions, calling them "complete nonsense" and "crazy." He pointed to police statistics from the Glen Burnie area showing decreases in several crime categories.

The council narrowly passed a resolution enabling the developer to secure a $3 million state loan to build the 36-unit apartment complex in the 7700 block of Baltimore Annapolis Blvd., essentially green-lighting the project.

The council will vote next month on whether to give New York-based Conifer Realty a $7,000 annual tax break on the 2-acre property, also critical to the project. The developer has until Nov.15 to close on the vacant property, which is currently in foreclosure. The developer plans to have the complex ready for occupancy at this time next year.

The project has also stirred discussion among neighbors, some of whom share Grasso's concerns that the new residents would degrade the neighborhood.

Grasso said a large stock of housing catering to those with low incomes already exists in the Glen Burnie area and that, if there's a need, other areas of the county should be considered. Grasso is a landlord who owns and manages several low-income apartment properties, which has raised questions about whether he should recuse himself from voting on the legislation in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"In that area, I don't have any low-income housing," said Grasso. "I have no financial ties with that property whatsoever. I'm not in competition with it. The best person to ask is someone who's in the business. I don't find it a conflict of interest whatsoever."

The pending bill was introduced as emergency legislation in an effort to accommodate Conifer's timeline. But Benoit, in an apparent effort to ensure passage, moved successfully to remove the emergency designation, which would have required five votes instead of four.

Andrew Crossed, vice president of Conifer, said prospective residents of the $10 million development would be screened by a third party in an effort to weed out troublemakers. The project has secured a $500,000 loan from Arundel Community Development Services, a quasi-public agency, and a $3 million loan from the state Department of Housing and Community Development. The rents would not be government-subsidized, Crossed said.

"I don't think that affordable workforce housing is a catalyst for crime," said Crossed. "Really, it comes down to the quality of the community and the management of the community. This particular community will be state-of-the-art, affordable, workforce housing. I don't agree with [Grasso's] comments."

Kathleen Koch, director of the county development agency, said the Anne Arundel needs affordable housing, though she said she could not provide statistics. Prospective residents would have annual incomes ranging from $25,000 to $50,000, and pay from $475 to $1,150 in monthly rent.

"As less people are able to buy homes, the rental market is getting tighter and becoming more and more expensive," said Koch. "Workforce housing is strongly needed in this county. People who work for the county can't afford to live within the county."

Grasso, who voted against the resolution, along with Council Chairman Richard Ladd of Severna Park and Derek Fink of Pasadena, both Republicans, encouraged other council members to tour the area before deciding.

"Get your tennis shoes on and talk to the people and come to my area," said Grasso. "You're talking about something you know nothing about."

In the neighborhood where Marley Meadows would be built, several residents who live next to the property said they were concerned about having apartments close to their backyards.

Santiago Rivera, who has lived with his wife and children at a home near the site for 12 years, said he's opposed to the apartment complex.

"On this little property," said Rivera, pointing to the green patch of land on a recent afternoon. "It's too little an area for having too many apartments."

Adam Bolling, a six-year resident of the neighborhood, said crime from another nearby apartment complex for low-income residents has already affected the neighborhood, with two recent drug arrests near his home.

"I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else," said Bolling. "But I can see with this coming in here, there'll be more crime. Lumping them together here just brings more problems."

Bolling, who works as a real estate developer, also said he sees a potential for a drop in property values.

Brian "Skip" Evans, who works as a locomotive engineer and has lived in the neighborhood his whole life, said he was most concerned about increased traffic.

"I'm tired of sitting in traffic jams," he said.

Grasso, who toured the area with a visitor, urged Evans to call County Executive John R. Leopold, a Republican, and Councilman Daryl Jones, a Severn Democrat, to voice his opposition.

"Don't be nice," Grasso advised. "You got to be nasty. They don't live here, but they think they know better."

Grasso's talk wore on another of his Republican colleagues, Councilman Jerry Walker, who joined the majority and voted in support of the development.

Walker got so frustrated with Grasso that he revealed a personal detail in a private conversation between the two that he had long kept quiet: He's opened his home for nearly two years to a family that fell on hard times financially and was left homeless, a revelation Walker was initially hesitant to confirm when asked about it.

"He kept saying that in our discussions — that where there's low-income people, there's crime," said Walker, of Gambrills. "And I just got tired of him saying that. I disagree with him. You're blanketing these people in a general term. You don't know every one of them, and I'll give you the perfect example."

Walker said he wants to protect the privacy of the family and is loath to be viewed as using someone's misfortune for political purposes, but he wanted Grasso to know that poor people shouldn't be painted with a broad brush. Walker said he plans to vote for the tax break.

"We're actually collecting more taxes with the tax break than we would with the land being vacant and not accepting anything," he said.