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Baltimore County wants to expand affordable housing. Advocates say they still face significant obstacles.

One affordable housing proposal in Pikesville was thwarted last year when the Baltimore County Council rejected a zoning request. Another in Towson won approval from an administrative law judge this March after months of controversy, but the approval was soon appealed by neighbors.

Five years after reaching what was hailed as a groundbreaking federal agreement to reform its approach to affordable housing in response to complaints of discrimination, the county routinely sees community opposition to projects.

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County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. recently announced he wants to create a county agency to help overcome a historic resistance to affordable housing. But locations for new projects are limited, and advocates say the County Council has too much sway over which proposals move forward.

“Until the political climate changes in Baltimore County, or they change their process, I don’t see us being able to build in Baltimore County,” said Ellen Jarrett, director of housing and planning and development for Comprehensive Housing Associates Inc., a nonprofit that wanted to develop the Pikesville site.

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Olszewski, a Democrat elected in 2018, has supported expanding access to housing in the suburban county of 827,000 people. His proposed housing department would focus on affordable housing, homelessness, eviction prevention, tenant counseling and home ownership.

Another primary goal of the new agency would be to oversee compliance with the 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the county to add a total of 1,000 affordable units by 2027. Last year, the county fell short of its annual goal under the agreement for approving new affordable housing units.

County officials acknowledged in a recent report that the county has lacked a comprehensive strategy for affordable housing, instead taking a “piecemeal approach” to the HUD agreement. They hope the creation of a housing department will centralize those efforts.

The settlement reached under then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz resolved complaints filed a decade ago by groups including the local NAACP branch. It aimed to address decades of county policies that complainants said perpetuated racial segregation and discriminated against Black families and people with disabilities.

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This month, the county also announced an Affordable Housing Work Group that will consider changes to “incentives, policies and legislation.” The group plans to issue short-term recommendations to achieve the county’s affordable housing goal this year and issue a long-term plan in December, said Terry Hickey, the county’s deputy director of housing and community development.

Carolyn Johnson, an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, which seeks to end homelessness in Maryland, said county lawmakers should take the lead from neighboring counties, like Anne Arundel County, which exempts affordable housing construction from school capacity limits.

Johnson also pointed to Montgomery County, which instituted inclusionary housing laws requiring residential developers to create a certain number of affordable units in market-rate housing projects.

Anne Arundel’s policy has proved effective, Johnson said. Nine developers there have applied for the state’s low-income housing tax credit, a program providing significant funding for affordable housing, she said.

Last year, Johnson and Jarrett said, no developers applied to the program for Baltimore County projects, meaning the county likely won’t meet its affordable housing goal this year.

“You need leadership from the county exec,” Johnson said. “Like you’re seeing in Anne Arundel County. They have been able to pass things through the County Council there.”

Niesha McCoy, who has mobility disabilities, said she struggled to find an apartment to accommodate her needs when she moved to Randallstown from the city a dozen years ago.

The apartment she found was small and she still had to make adjustments — like taking off her bathroom door “just to get my wheelchair in the door,” she said.

Years later, she is looking to move to a “more accessible” apartment, she said. But finding one remains difficult.

“It is troublesome because there’s not many,” she said.

In 2019, the County Council voted 4-3 to ban landlord discrimination against tenants who use housing vouchers commonly known as “Section 8.” Olszewski was required to introduce the legislation under the HUD agreement.

But this past fall, attorneys for several civil rights and disability groups warned the Olszewski administration that the county could face legal action for other breaches of the HUD agreement. The lawyers pointed to several actions by the County Council that could prevent the development of affordable housing, which they said “often face fierce NIMBY attitudes.”

They cited the proposed Pikesville project at property owned by St. Mark’s on the Hill Church, which Councilman Izzy Patoka decided not to rezone to allow the development. Both the county planning staff and planning commission recommended the rezoning, but the council voted with Patoka.

The lawyers faulted a “deeply embedded culture of Councilmanic courtesy where zoning decisions are made exclusively by the Councilperson in whose district the project is sited, and other Councilmembers support those decisions without question.”

The Pikesville Communities Corp., a coalition of 17 community associations, opposed rezoning the church’s land to pave the way for affordable housing.

In a letter to Patoka, the organization’s president, Alan Zukerberg, said that Pikesville is already “saturated” with affordable housing, noting an age-restricted affordable building half a mile away from where the new development was proposed, and a large apartment complex with a mix of market rate and affordable housing off Reisterstown Road near the city line. He also cited economic effects, school crowding and traffic.

In an interview, Zukerberg said Pikesville has been historically “neglected when it comes to amenities.”

There’s little parkland, no public golf course and no public recreation facility, he said. Zukerberg said he advocated for the county to purchase the church property to build a park to no avail.

Patoka, a Pikesville Democrat, said his zoning decision was not motivated by political pressure, but by environmental concerns.

“Pikesville has such little green space,” he said. “We need to take a hard look at the areas in which we steer development, whether market-rate or affordable.”

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The civil rights lawyers wrote the letter to oppose a bill proposed by Councilman David Marks, a Republican, that would have restricted the height of Red Maple Place, the project planned for East Towson. Nearby residents had opposed the project, citing concerns about overdevelopment and protecting green space. The council ultimately rejected Marks’ measure.

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Dana Johnson, president and CEO of Annapolis-based Homes for America, the developer of Red Maple Place, said resistance in the county is deterring developers of affordable housing.

“Folks see what’s happening, and they decide that maybe this is not something they want to pursue,” Johnson said.

So far, the county has approved 546 units, short of its 2020 goal of 570. County officials say they are on target with other goals, such as the number of units leased.

A HUD spokeswoman said the federal agency believes the county remains on track. HUD has “substantially invested in building Baltimore County’s capacity,” spokeswoman Nika Edwards said, funding assistance with mobility counseling, marketing, data evaluation and other needs.

The county’s newest affordable housing development, the 26-unit Towns at Padonia in Lutherville, is expected to begin leasing next month.

But many of the units built so far are on the county’s west side, including two large projects — Red Run Overlook and the Preserve at Red Run — that are both in the New Town High School district, county officials noted in the recent report.

That’s a problem to Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat who represents communities on the county’s west side, including parts of Reisterstown, Owings Mills, Woodlawn and Randallstown. He noted the HUD agreement said the county should work to ensure the units are “geographically dispersed” in prosperous neighborhoods.

“I’ve taken a position where I’m saying, no more in my district until we get this spread out over the county,” Jones said.

In 2019, residents in his district objected to a proposal for a 53-unit affordable housing project planned for 9307 Lyons Mill Road. Their concerns included traffic and school overcrowding, and they said their predominantly Black community already had enough affordable units.

A county administrative law judge rejected plans for the project in November 2019, agreeing with the concerns about traffic and school overcrowding — and with residents’ position that their community “already has more than its fair share of low-income housing and that other areas of the County have none, or virtually none.”

Last year, Jones approved the Lyonswood Homeowners’ Association’s request to limit the density of development that could be built there in the future.

“It was a very difficult position for me because I support workforce housing,” Jones said. “But I also know that if I’m the guy that says ‘OK,’ then we will have it all in my district.”

But, Marks said, the county is “exhausting the amount of available property.”

It raises the question of whether to build more affordable homes outside of areas served by public water and sewer. In the 1960s, county leaders designated areas for growth while trying to protect the rural character of portions of the county without water and sewer. That decision, Marks said, preserves land but makes development complex.

As a result, the majority of the county’s population is concentrated in one-third of its land, according to an analysis conducted for the county.

The shortage of affordable housing is seen around the country. President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed incentives for local governments that change zoning laws to allow multifamily housing in areas now restricted to single-family development.

In Maryland, a recent report commissioned by the state concluded that there is a shortage of 85,000 affordable apartments for very low-income families.

The report by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth and Enterprise Community Partners said the need will increase dramatically over the next decade.

Nick Finio, the center’s associate director, said Maryland particularly needs more new affordable housing in the suburbs.

Land zoned for multifamily housing “is relatively rare in suburban jurisdictions,” Finio said. “There’s not a lot of new multifamily zoning happening.”

People can have knee-jerk reactions against affordable housing development, said Brian McLaughlin, the president and CEO of Baltimore-based Enterprise Community Development, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, but he hopes people can reassess their beliefs.

“What does it mean to live in a world, in a region that is accommodating to everyone who’s here?” he said. “I think the more we can have dialogue ... the better we’re going to become as a region.”

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