Baltimore County to curb housing segregation

Baltimore County announces deal to settle a federal housing discrimination complaint against its policies. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore County officials announced plans Tuesday to begin dismantling decades of discriminatory housing policies and the segregation they have wrought by expanding the number of affordable rental homes in prosperous communities from Cockeysville to Catonsville and from Towson to White Marsh.

After nearly five years of negotiations, county officials agreed to resolve a federal housing discrimination complaint with a deal that U.S. officials called "groundbreaking" in its scope: The county is to spend $30 million over the next decade to entice developers to build 1,000 homes for low-income African-American families in prosperous county neighborhoods.


The county also pledged to help 2,000 families on Section 8 rent subsidies to move from poor, predominantly African-American communities to better-integrated neighborhoods with stronger schools, lower crime and minimal clusters of subsidized homes.

Activists hailed the agreement.

"Opening up opportunities throughout the county for low-income families to live, work and go to school are the first important steps in creating a more inclusive Baltimore County," said Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP. "While only a beginning, it is our hope that this agreement marks a turning of the page from a long history of segregation and exclusion."

The agreement resolves a federal housing complaint filed in 2011 by the local NAACP branch, Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc. and three county residents. They accused the county of perpetuating segregated clusters of minority renters with government subsidies by failing to expand affordable options in prosperous neighborhoods.

The complainants alleged that the county had maintained policies that kept low-income and minority residents out of the best neighborhoods by spending most of its federal housing money on housing for the elderly occupied primarily by whites, demolishing and failing to replace 4,100 subsidized housing units for families since 1995, and locating Section 8 voucher holders in poor and segregated neighborhoods.

"These practices and many others were intended, or have had the effect, of fostering residential segregation and reducing the production of housing needed by low-income households, especially African Americans, families with children, and persons with disabilities," they said in a summary of their complaint.

Gustavo Velasquez, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for fair housing, called the work by advocates, county officials and the federal government to craft a deal that can achieve clearly stated goals that his agency can monitor "unprecedented."

Barbara Samuels, managing attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, agreed.


"It's results-oriented," she said. "The county has come a long way since Dale Anderson."

Anderson, a Democratic county executive from 1966 to 1974, campaigned on a promise to keep public housing out of the county. Baltimore County is the most segregated jurisdiction in Maryland.

Advocates praised Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for working with them.

The deal targets 116 prosperous census tracts, in which the county will now be obligated to encourage the construction of affordable housing units set aside primarily for low-income African-American families.

Housing organizations are hopeful that the work will help to provide more families access to better schools for their children. Research shows that can improve their chances of escaping poverty.

"What we have today is justice in housing in Baltimore County," said Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc.


As part of the deal, announced Tuesday at the Towson public library, Kamenetz agreed to introduce legislation to the County Council that would forbid landlords to refuse to rent to tenants with Section 8 vouchers.

A similar bill proposing a statewide prohibition is pending in Annapolis, but has failed repeatedly to pass.

Some County Council members have indicated that such a local bill would fail.

"I will be voting for it, but I suspect it is a long shot," said Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat.

Neighboring Baltimore City has been working quietly for years to make sure its housing policies do not run afoul of the federal Fair Housing Act.

The city housing authority spent $12 million over the past eight years to purchase nearly 30 houses inBaltimoreCountyand 16 in Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties to serve as public housing forBaltimoreresidents, aBaltimoreSun investigation found.

The city agency has also passed along approximately $51 million in federal funds to a program run by the nonprofit Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership.

That organization was born out of a landmark fair housing ruling in Baltimore City known as Thompson v. HUD. In that case a federal judge ruled that HUD had failed to take a regional approach to desegregatingBaltimore'spublic housing.

The Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership's "mobility" program uses the funds to provide rental subsidies to the nearly 3,100 families who have moved from impoverished city neighborhoods to apartments or houses in prosperous suburban communities, primarily in Howard andBaltimorecounties. Another 1,300 families are to be moved over the next three years.

As part of the agreement announced Tuesday, Baltimore County will establish its own mobility program to provide counseling to help 2,000 predominantly African-American families with rental subsidies relocate from poor county neighborhoods with high minority populations to more prosperous communities.

Suburban developments that propose setting aside units for low-income tenants often attract intense opposition, leading to their defeat and discouraging future projects.

Fair housing advocates have long pushed state and local officials to do more to meet the requirements of federal civil rights housing laws, including passing legislation to prevent landlords from refusing to rent to subsidized tenants.

The deal calls for providing incentives to private developers to build 1,000 affordable homes for low-income families in more diverse neighborhoods. The county and developers will have to take "meaningful steps" to make sure the homes are "geographically dispersed and are not unduly concentrated in any particular census tracts," they agreed.

The county agreed to commit $30 million over 10 years "to leverage financing" from private developers to build those units. Kamenetz and the council have already agreed to commit $24 million to the county's Economic Development Financing Fund.

The county is setting up a $3 million fund to pay for upgrades to make existing affordable housing accessible to people with disabilities and vouchers, who face two massive hurdles to find places to live.

Valerie Smith, who has cerebral palsy, helps clients at the Maryland Disability Law Center find accessible homes.


"It's hard for people with disabilities to find places to live on their own rather than in nursing homes," Smith said. "This will help them to live on their own in the community."