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Baltimore County on track to meet goals of affordable housing settlement, but challenges remain

Baltimore County on track to meet goals of affordable housing settlement, but challenges remain
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who recently met with The Baltimore Sun editorial board, said the county has "both a legal and moral obligation to provide affordable housing." (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Three years into a landmark legal settlement targeting housing policies, Baltimore County says more than half of the 1,000 affordable homes it promised are built or in the works.

But challenges remain as the county navigates the multiyear settlement under the administration of a new county executive. The county must sustain its pace in helping to finance affordable housing projects under the deal with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. needs to introduce controversial legislation this year prohibiting landlords from refusing to accept housing vouchers commonly called Section 8. And affordable-housing projects are often unpopular, drawing opposition from neighbors like one such proposal in Owings Mills.

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Olszewski, a Democrat who took office in December, said his administration is working to fulfill the goals of the settlement agreed to by the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

“We have both a legal and a moral obligation to provide affordable housing in Baltimore County,” he said in a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun.

The 2016 settlement resolved complaints filed by the county NAACP, three residents and Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit that abruptly closed last year. They alleged that county housing policies perpetuated segregation, discriminating against African-Americans, families with children, and residents with disabilities. The groups said the county’s zoning policies restricted the development of affordable housing, and that the county spent most of its housing money on programs such as senior-citizen rentals — which mostly benefited white residents — and demolished thousands of subsidized units for families.

The settlement requires Baltimore County to encourage private developers to build or rehabilitate 1,000 affordable rental units by 2027 in more prosperous neighborhoods. Introduction of the voucher legislation is also among the requirements.

“I think that the formula is there,” said Tony Fugett, president of the NAACP’s Baltimore County branch. “It’s just a matter of playing catch-up in the county and trying to make it work after years and years of segregation.”

But some are questioning where the government is encouraging the development of affordable housing. The county settlement specified that the new homes should be developed in 132 specific census tracts throughout the county — areas with low poverty, good schools and access to jobs.

“The idea was to have these units dispersed throughout Baltimore County,” said County Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

Constituents in Jones’ district recently raised objections to a 53-unit project called the Enclave at Lyons Mill, proposed by Conifer Realty and Episcopal Housing Corp. on a property at 9307 Lyons Mill Road. Two other affordable housing communities are nearby: The Preserve at Red Run and Red Run Overlook, which is under construction.

The Enclave project has not received financial support from the county, partly because of its location. It won’t count toward the settlement goals, but the state awarded it $1.5 million in tax credits last year.

Neighbors said their predominantly black community already has more affordable housing projects than other parts of the county.

“I’m not against affordable housing,” said Dwayne Jackson, who grew up in public housing in Baltimore. “I just feel that it needs to be equally distributed throughout the county.”

Lavone Grant of the Lyonswood Homeowners Association, which represents residents of a single-family development next to the proposed site, said traffic is already “horrendous.” The area is home to numerous apartments and town homes.

“It’s difficult getting out of our development, and it's difficult getting in,” said Grant, adding that she didn’t think an affordable housing project was “appropriate” to put next to a single-family development. “To put another apartment complex right there — it makes no sense.”

Critics also point to overcrowding at the nearby Lyons Mill Elementary, which is 112 students over capacity, according to school system data.

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Members of the homeowners association recently wrote to local and state officials to oppose the project, citing concerns over its impact on the environment, traffic, schools, crime and property values. The letter says Owings Mills “already supports more than its fair share of affordable housing” while other parts of the county have none.

“Owings Mills has met its quota,” they wrote.

Neither Episcopal Housing Corp. nor Conifer Realty returned multiple messages seeking comment.

Olszewski said he is sympathetic to the neighborhood’s concerns.

“I understand some of the angst because part of the agreement is seeking to have affordable housing actually be more equitably distributed across the county,” Olszewski said. “That project sort of is counter to that underlying value.”

That’s why the county turned down financing for the project, and it won’t count toward the benchmarks the county has to meet.

State officials said the project helps meet the goals of a separate fair housing settlement — a 2017 pledge by the state to finance 1,500 affordable units around the Baltimore region. That case dealt with allegations that Maryland discriminated in the way it awarded low-income housing tax credits, which are the federal government’s primary tool for supporting the construction of affordable rental units.

“We're trying to ensure enough affordable housing in the Baltimore metro area,” said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for the state housing agency. “We believe this project helps fulfill that goal. The Department of Housing and Community Development has to look at the state as a whole.”

In Baltimore County, some of the completed projects have largely escaped controversy, officials said.

“We’ve managed to do these things and get them done successfully,” without much opposition, said County Attorney Mike Field.

So far, the county has lent developers more than $14 million of the $30 million pledged to help them build affordable units under the agreement. The county provides very low interest, long-term loans for such projects. In some cases, the loans can be forgiven.

County planning officials say 325 units are built or under construction, with 195 more in planning stages. That adds up to 520, more than half of the 1,000 units required by the settlement.

“The goal is to integrate into the community so that it doesn’t become noticeable,” said Jeff Mayhew, acting director of the county planning office.

Completed projects include Dunfield Townhomes in Nottingham and the Towns at Woodfield in Windsor Mill, according to the planning office. The figure also includes 42 “scattered site” homes in communities including Parkville, Rosedale and Reisterstown.

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New multiunit projects are proposed for the Towson and Lutherville areas, according to the councilmen who represent those areas.

In Towson, Homes for America wants to build 51 units on Joppa Road near Fairmount Avenue, said Councilman David Marks. And in Lutherville, Osprey Property Co. has proposed a 26-unit development on Long Vista Court, off East Padonia Road, according to Councilman Wade Kach’s office.

Federal housing officials told The Sun that since the county agreed to the settlement, about 190 people have participated in a “mobility counseling program” designed to help voucher holders move to more prosperous neighborhoods, in order to avoid clustering them into segregated and low-income areas. The county is required to help relocate 2,000 people over a decade.

Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, said Baltimore County has “made a lot of progress” but faces challenges in the years ahead.

“We remain concerned about the county’s ability to sustain progress in the future,” said Hill, whose organization has been tracking implementation of the agreement.

He pointed to the county’s history, detailed in the federal complaint. In the 1940s, county policies isolated Turner Station, a black enclave in Dundalk, from white neighborhoods. In the 1960s, the county refused to create a public housing authority or build public housing. And in the 1990s, some politicians and residents opposed a federal program designed to help Baltimore public housing residents move to the suburbs — tapping into “longstanding racial tensions and opposition to HUD-subsidized housing in the County,” according to the complaint.

“It’s important to recognize that the county really is playing catch-up,” Hill said. “The county still has a long way to go to remedy that history.”

Nika Edwards, a HUD spokeswoman, said the federal agency is providing technical assistance to county officials and is “confident the county will continue to make progress.”

This year, the county will have to take up so-called “source of income legislation” under the federal agreement. This measure would forbid landlords from turning away tenants solely because they use a housing voucher. County voucher holders are concentrated on the east and west sides.

When Kamenetz introduced the bill known as the Baltimore County HOME Act in 2016, the County Council rejected it by a vote of 6-1. Jones was the lone supporter.

This month, Baltimore Acting Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young signed similar legislation for the city. Under an amendment criticized by housing advocates, the final version requires landlords to rent only 20% of their units to people with vouchers.

Gregory Friedman, community engagement officer with Citizens Planning & Housing Association Inc., said advocates are hopeful that Olszewski will be able to get council members on board with county legislation. Olszewski was the only candidate in last year’s county executive race to express support for the bill.

“We’re hoping that he will engage with the council and that this may lead to its passage,” Friedman said.

Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, said his group would support county legislation if it included a provision similar to the city’s, but required landlords to rent only 5% of units to voucher-holders.

T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the county executive, wouldn’t say whether Olszewski would support caps similar to the city’s law.

“The county executive is committed to an inclusive process in working toward fulfilling our obligations on affordable housing,” Smith said in a statement to The Sun. “It would be premature to say anything definitive about how the measure will be structured.”

Olszewski said he wants to work with all sides on the issue to find a version of the bill that can pass “without compromising the principles and the values” of the federal settlement.

“I want this to be collaborative,” Olszewski said. “I want to work with the industry to find a way to stop discrimination in Baltimore County. … You can’t stop it unless you actually can find something that’s passable.”

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