Arguing it would increase traffic congestion, contribute to street flooding and deprive a historically black neighborhood of open and green space, a number of people who live near the project have taken steps to alter, stall or halt it.
At a community input meeting in late October, one resident called the proposal a “50-unit obstruction.”
The proposal and opposition to it could foreshadow future controversies as a push by housing advocates and Baltimore County officials, who have approved a $2.1 million loan for Red Maple Place, to develop affordable housing runs into community opposition. Proponents of the needed housing say they realize they must overcome such concerns.
Homes for America, the Annapolis-based nonprofit behind the Red Maple Place development on a 2.5-acre parcel between Pennsylvania Avenue and Joppa Road, said after the community meeting that it is working to determine whether it’s possible to make “alterations" to its development plan.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.'s office is listening to community concerns regarding Red Maple Place, county spokesman Sean Naron said in a statement, but it remains committed to meeting the obligations of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to achieve more affordable housing in Baltimore County.
Olszewski has expressed support for the East Towson project multiple times, saying previously that his office is “committed to ensuring that Red Maple Place will be an asset to the community and the residents of our county as a high-quality, affordable housing option.”
Sheila Ruth, an affordable housing advocate in the county, said she understands that nobody wants to see big changes in their neighborhoods.
“It’s difficult because any kind of development always generates pushback, because nobody wants developments going up in their neighborhood,” Ruth said. But, “we desperately need more affordable housing in the county. People need to have homes. They need to have homes where they can be near good jobs and near good schools.”
Valid concerns should be addressed during the development process, said Ruth, who recently attended the bill signing for the county’s HOME Act, a newly passed law that prohibits landlords from denying tenants based solely on source of income, potentially opening up more housing options for low-income people.
County Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat who represents western Baltimore County and supported the HOME Act, said he expects to see community opposition when affordable housing developments are proposed. But, he said, he thinks people will become more accepting of them over time.
“I wish there had been more debate out in public,” Jones said of the HOME Act, which passed the County Council on a 4-3 straight party line vote.
While the HOME Act prohibits landlords from discriminating based on source of income, specifically against those using federal housing vouchers known as Section 8, it does allow landlords to run credit checks and background checks on applicants. It also doesn’t apply to landlords who own three or fewer properties if those properties have four or fewer units each.
Jones said that some people who have complained to him about the bill were understanding it “totally wrong,” and that educating people on it has changed their opinions. That same approach can apply to people who resist affordable housing developments near their community, he said.
Race is an “elephant in the room" when discussing issues of affordable housing developments and housing vouchers, he said.
“When you start talking about bringing people into [existing] communities, people get fearful. I understand those things,” Jones said. “I firmly believe that most people are good. And when people say things I always, I attack most issues as an education opportunity.”
East Towson, however, is a historically black neighborhood — one that already has nearby affordable housing in Tabco Towers and Virginia Towers — so race issues might not play as large a role in community resistance.
But the level of organized community opposition to the Red Maple Place project could be as a sign of what’s to come in other communities, especially given the contentious nature of the debate on the county’s HOME Act.
In mid-September, for example, Michele Yendall, a representative of the Harris Hill Condominiums, which borders the lot where the project would go, spent $250 to file a zoning change request for the plot of land where Red Maple Place would be built.
In the application, Yendall said the community would lose “a home to wild life right in the heart of Towson” and said a development of more than 50 units would “make the traffic situation on Joppa Road more difficult than already.”
Yendall did not respond to requests for comment.
The request, made as part of the county’s regular comprehensive zoning map process, would designate the lot as a “neighborhood commons,” a zoning overlay designed to preserve open space within established communities. Currently it is partially zoned for 10.5 housing units per acre and partially zoned for a higher-density of up to 80 apartment units per acre.
David Marks, the Republican County Council member who represents East Towson, said he could not “downzone private property down to nothing" during the zoning map process.
Marks did not say specifically how he might move forward when it comes to considering zoning changes, but that the council could change the density on “some or all of the parcel.”
“It’s highly unlikely I would change the zoning on all of the parcel,” Marks said.
Marks has said he believes the project in East Towson could be successful, but with some significant modifications to address community concerns.
Others have been mobilizing against the project in what might be viewed as more traditional ways: raising awareness and contacting public officials.
Nancy Goldring, a lifelong resident of East Towson, said people have knocked on her door, asking what can be done to alter or change the project, since the community input meeting.
“The only way I can describe it is that there is a kind of gravity to the concern now that wasn’t apparent [at the meeting] as it’s getting now,” Goldring said. “There’s some real concern about the survival of the community.”
Goldring said the development “threatens existing homeownership” in the neighborhood, because residents who have the ability to move somewhere else probably will.
“If they decide they’re going to keep their properties and rent them out then, in a very short period of time, we will become a primarily rental community, whether we like it or not,” Goldring said. “You don’t treat a rented car the way you treat your own.”
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She also said the building’s design — from the brown-brick facade to the proposed traffic flow, with one-way traffic off Joppa Road — are further knocks against the project.
“If the project was genuinely designed to give the low-income community a stake in Towson’s reinvention, they wouldn’t be trapped in an office building with one way in and one way out,” she said. “That’s what that thing looks like to anyone with eyes to see it.”
Diane Clyde, executive vice president with Homes for America, said in an email that the group appreciates the feedback from the community and is “working with our architects and engineers to determine whether it is possible to make alterations to the plans.”
Clyde wrote that the group selected the parcel in East Towson because of its walkability to downtown Towson, its proximity to public transit, its zoning for multifamily housing, and because of its location in “a well-established neighborhood.”
David Riley, president of the Knollwood Association — in a neighborhood to the south of East Towson — said he wants to “raise awareness of the significance of the community, of the historic East Towson.”
“The issue is the maintaining of a cultural asset of Towson,” Riley said. “It’s a great story. It’s a community founded by freed slaves from the Hampton Manor.”
Following the community input meeting, which took place Oct. 29, developers have a year to submit a proposal to the county for approval. Clyde said the project should take a year to build once construction begins.