Council backs extension of affordable housing law until 2020

The Baltimore City Council voted Monday to extend for eight years a law requiring developers to build affordable housing in projects that receive large public subsidies — but not to make the law permanent, as advocates had hoped.

The council members "are not helping to bring the middle class back to Baltimore," said Mel Freeman, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, the law's chief proponent. The law is intended to let people from lower income brackets live in neighborhoods with good schools, parks and other amenities.

Nine of the council's 15 members voted in favor of an amendment pushed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake that would continue the terms of the law until 2020. The 2007 law would have expired next year if the council had not acted.

Councilman James B. Kraft, who voted in favor of the 2020 sunset provision, said the council should work with advocates to improve the bill before it is set to expire.

"This was not a great bill when we passed it, but because it was an election year, many of us felt we needed to do something to support affordable housing," said Kraft.

Councilwoman Helen Holton, who also voted for the 2020 sunset, questioned her colleagues' motivations in supporting an indefinite extension.

"In an election year, people vote for things without giving consideration to ramifications of a bill after an election year," she said.

The original law was riddled with loopholes after the council passed nearly 100 amendments, many written by a team of developers. Only one project — Hampden's Union Mill —- has triggered the law; 10 affordable units are being built there. Seawall Development, the developer behind that project, willingly abided by the requirements on two other projects.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, one of the law's staunchest advocates on the council, voted against the Rawlings-Blake amendment. Echoing housing advocates, she said developers would delay projects until after the sunset date had passed.

"If there had been any effort to make it work in the past four years, I wouldn't be so worried about the deadline," said Clarke, noting that a report on the bill, a stipulation of the original law, was never issued.

"If children have an opportunity to live where there are decent schools and opportunities for them to do better, they will do better," she said.

Councilman Bill Henry, who also voted against the amendment, said a sunset date is "an expression of our lack of commitment to an idea."

"If we vote to hobble this bill, all we're saying is we still don't really believe enough in this bill to make it law."

A final vote on the bill is slated for next Monday.