Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. wants to create an agency dedicated to housing, eviction and foreclosure prevention and community revitalization, the last of the state’s most populous jurisdictions to do so.
The new department would assume oversight of the county’s 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to correct decades of policies and practices that perpetuated racial segregation, and to resolve a lawsuit brought by groups that included the Baltimore County NAACP.
Creating the agency requires approval from County Council. The bill is expected to be introduced during the council’s meeting Monday.
Olszewski said during a news conference Thursday that the department would coordinate functions currently split among several offices, such as the Office of Housing, the Office of Homeless Services and the Neighborhood Improvement Division, which manages state and federal grants for housing development and homeownership services.
The office would manage $120 million in state and federal grant funding and private sources to help people find affordable homes or keep their current homes, said Terry Hickey, Baltimore County’s deputy director of Housing and Community Development.
Olszewski will include $850,000 for the proposed Department of Housing and Community Development in his operating budget, which will be presented to the County Council on April 15.
Olszewski plans to nominate Hickey as the housing department’s first director. His position currently falls under the Department of Health and Human Services.
Oversight of affordable housing complexes will remain under the purview of the Department of Permits, Approvals, and Inspections.
Olszewski, a Democrat, has prioritized housing issues since taking office, including pushing for passage of a 2019 law to prevent landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who want to use federal housing vouchers to pay their rent, known as the HOME Act. The county had failed to approve a similar law in 2016.
Danita Tolson, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, called the announcement a step in the right direction.
Still, she said wants to see specifics of the plan. For instance, she would like to know how the administration will address community resistance to building affordable housing.
“You can put everything on paper, but to see the results — that’s what we want to see,” she said.
The county reached the settlement with HUD in 2016 under then-County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat.
Don Mohler, who was Kamenetz’s chief of staff and filled his post after Kamenetz’s death in 2018, said settling the lawsuit was a major focus for the administration. They discussed creating a separate housing agency, but it did not come to fruition, he said.
“I think bringing these different components of housing policy under one agency, managing the grants under one agency, is a really welcome change in Baltimore County,” Mohler said.
Centralizing under a single agency will give the issue of housing “the real focus it needs,” he said.
The landmark legal settlement with HUD resolved housing complaints brought by the county NAACP, three residents and Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit organization that has since closed. They alleged that the county’s housing policies discriminated against Black residents, families with children, and people with disabilities.
The complaint detailed the county’s legacy of segregation and decades-long resistance to addressing affordable housing.
For instance, in the 1960s, the complaint states, the county “refused to create public housing or a public housing authority, and in 1967, the County even refused to allow Baltimore City to lease lower-income housing units in the County that would likely have been filled by African-American families.”
Decades later, in the 1990s, elected officials and some residents “tapped into longstanding racial tensions and opposition to HUD-subsidized housing in the County” by leading opposition to a program meant to help public housing residents from Baltimore move to the suburbs, the complaint states.
“I do think attitudes are changing,” Olszewski said after the announcement. Creating a centralized housing department is “another important step” to combating “what has been a complicated legacy on affordable housing,” he said.
Under the settlement, the county is required to add 1,000 affordable housing units by 2027.
By February, the county had reported 513 approved affordable housing units, including 50 units at a widely opposed planned development called Red Maple Place in East Towson.
The county did not meet its benchmark of 570 affordable apartments approved by the end of 2020, according to a November letter to the county attorney from lawyers representing the Baltimore County NAACP and other local groups.
The County Council, historically, has held sway over which affordable housing projects move forward and continues to have “a huge amount of leverage over” them, said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, who helped represent complainants alleging housing discrimination against the county.
Council members in 2013, for instance, blocked plans for an affordable housing complex in Rosedale by voting against the developer’s application for state funding for the project.
In November, the same developer, Homes for America, threatened legal action over a bill that would have impeded an affordable housing building in East Towson.
“Those structures are not an accident,” Hill said. They are “deliberate policy choices rooted in the county’s deep-seated aversion to affordable housing, in particular. Dismantling those structures now is difficult. And it’s going to require a focused, intense effort.”
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Baltimore County is one of the few jurisdictions without a public housing authority, Hill noted.
The county does not operate public housing and is not planning to establish a public housing program, county spokesman Sean Naron said.
“We need the partnership of the County Council” to support housing equity, Olszewski said, given that they “continue to have oversight over things like zoning.”
Republican County Councilman David Marks, who twice voted against the HOME Act, said he would support the housing agency bill, but “I don’t want to create a massive new bureaucracy.”
Still, he said, housing policy “needs to be comprehensive” and include support structures in areas where affordable housing is built.
Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat whose district includes Owings Mills and Randallstown, said the county’s piecemeal approach to housing prevented the county from effectively advocating for housing equity.
“I’m hopeful that this department will be able to advocate and be very proactive in these developments moving forward,” he said about affordable housing projects. “It hasn’t been easy. But I do think we’re making progress.”