Advocates, council members demand affordable housing requirement at Port Covington

"We want more than goals," councilman says of Port Covington development.

The debate over the massive Port Covington project turned even more heated Tuesday as community advocates and Baltimore City Council members demanded that the developer be required to provide a specific amount of affordable housing.

They said such a requirement is needed to prevent racial and economic segregation.

At stake is $660 million in bonds that Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank's Sagamore Development Co. has asked the city to float for the development's infrastructure. The council's economic development committee is considering Sagamore's proposal.

"We cannot have a segregated community paid for by public funds," said City Councilman Carl Stokes, chairman of the committee. "Social justice is good business."

Sagamore has set a goal of 10 percent affordable housing at Port Covington, but Stokes has introduced a bill that would require that at least 20 percent of the housing units be set aside for low-income residents. Advocates are proposing 25 percent.

Meanwhile, Councilman Bill Henry wants to pass a citywide law requiring that all city-subsidized developments include 10 percent affordable housing. Henry's bill would require that homes for sale be affordable to households earning 80 percent of area median income, or $65,700 for a family of four. Rental units would have to be affordable to households earning 60 percent of the median.

Dozens of community members packed into a City Hall work session Tuesday applauded calls for more housing affordable to lower- and moderate-income families. The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon was removed from the meeting after shouting at developers, saying they were creating an enclave for the rich.

Jon Laria, an attorney for Sagamore, said the developers consider their pledged affordable housing goal of 10 percent to be a mandate.

He said the developers are meeting with City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to consider increasing the percentage of housing units to be set aside for affordable housing.

"If we can, we will," Laria said. "Affordable housing units can't be built for free."

Laria took umbrage at comments made by the Rev. Andrew Foster Connors of Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development, or BUILD.

"The city should not be in the business of subsidizing wealthy enclaves, especially one year after the unrest," Foster Connors said, referring to the rioting after the funeral for Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in April 2015 from spinal injuries suffered in police custody.

"We're not your enemy, Reverend," Laria countered. "This type of snarkiness isn't helpful to the discussion. ... I'm not going to ask Sagamore to sit here if there's booing and cheering back and forth."

Foster Connors replied, "I don't feel I'm being snarky if I call out a developer who refuses to come out from behind attorneys and a PR campaign."

Sagamore has proposed a $5.5 billion waterfront development that would include a new headquarters for Under Armour, restaurants, shops, housing and manufacturing space, among other features. It would be the recipient of the largest tax increment financing deal in Baltimore history. Future taxes paid by the developer would go toward repaying the $660 million in bonds.

BUILD and other advocacy groups, including the Public Justice Center, are calling on Sagamore to alter its proposed tax increment financing deal to spend some of the $140 million proposed for parks and amenities on affordable housing instead. Among the amenities they criticize are kayak landings and boat slips, which they say are not necessary infrastructure.

"It's very easy to derisively talk about kayaks," Laria said. He called them "world-class amenities" that could be used by people of all races and income levels.

The groups want mandated affordable housing and profit-sharing agreements with the developers. Stokes and others said they do, too.

"Get it done or the bill will not get done," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke.

Stokes said he plans to hold a third work session on the project Monday. If the council is satisfied with the developer's legal pledges on key issues by that time, Stokes said he could call for a vote then to move the matter to the full 15-member council.

Advocates and developers have planned a closed-door, 9 a.m. meeting Wednesday at City Hall.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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