The Baltimore County Council on Monday night killed a bill that would have reduced the height of a planned four-story affordable housing building in East Towson, citing concerns that its passage would violate the Fair Housing Act.
Three Democratic council members — council chair Cathy Bevins, Councilman Tom Quirk and Councilman Julian Jones — abstained from the vote. Republican Councilmen David Marks and Todd Crandell and Democrat Izzy Patoka voted to support it, and Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican, voted against.
A county bill does not pass unless the legislation is affirmed by a majority of the council, said Thomas Bostwick, council secretary.
The bill was introduced just a few weeks before the planned development hearings for Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing complex proposed by Annapolis-based Homes for America near Historic East Towson and the Harris Hills condominium community.
The project is widely opposed by community members and the Green Towson Alliance, who say building on the site will worsen stormwater runoff issues that already exist there.
But county attorney James Benjamin advised the council members that passing the bill would make the county more vulnerable to a lawsuit already threatened by several organizations who make up the counsel for Voluntary Compliance Agreement complainants.
The VCA is an agreement among the county, HUD and county complainants, including the Baltimore County NAACP, that aims to hold the county accountable for its agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016 to resolve a housing discrimination complaint after “decades of policies and practices that limited fair housing choice throughout the county,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, one of the groups that provides legal counsel to VCA complainants.
Under the agreement, the county must add 1,000 affordable housing units by 2027, but the county is currently 67 units short of meeting its benchmark to approve 570 units by the end of the calendar year.
Benjamin said he’s worried an approval of Marks' bill could have been used to demonstrate that the county has a habit of blocking affordable housing projects, as asserted by the VCA in a letter to Benjamin opposing the proposed legislation.
The VCA counsel, made up of attorneys from the Public Justice Center, the ACLU of Maryland, the NAACP, Disability Rights Maryland, and others, pointed to other council actions they said showed a pattern of preventing the construction of affordable housing projects, including a rezoning request through the county’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process that blocked a 50-unit project in Pikesville on land owned by St. Mark’s on the Hill Episcopal Church.
Fair housing advocates have identified “three separate instances the county” where local legislation precluded affordable housing projects, Benjamin said.
“You’re looking at a pattern, and you’re looking at a situation where you may have evidence that would demonstrate a disparate impact [on a protected group of people], in part because we haven’t been able to achieve compliance with the [Voluntary Compliance Agreement],” Benjamin said.
Dana Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Homes for America, said in a statement she was grateful the council essentially “voted against discrimination and in support of access to opportunity for all.”
She added that development opponents have shared “a lot of disinformation" about the project, "and we look forward to proceeding to the administrative law judge hearing where the development plan will be judged on the facts and not on hyperbole.”
Marks, who represents the Towson area on the council, maintained that he was against the scale of the project, not “against getting affordable housing to this site.”
But Quirk said it felt like the goal post on the Red Maple project keeps changing, and Bevins said she was confused about what the council was meant to do.
In March, the council voted to support Marks' bill to shift the project farther away from the Harris Hills condominium building. During the Comprehensive Zoning Map Process, the council voted, along with Marks, to thwart an effort by the Harris Hills Condominium Association and the Green Towson Alliance seeking to block the development by rezoning it.
“That’s two times the council as a whole supported you on this issue,” Bevins told Marks. “Now four months later you’re asking us to go against both of the votes that we voted on, essentially.”
“It could’ve been downzoned. We went against the community then — you went against the community then — and now you’re asking us to not let this happen,” she added.
Marks said he was advised during the rezoning process that changing the zoning would have invited a lawsuit. He added that he thought Homes for America would be amenable to scaling the project back. And although the nonprofit has said reducing Red Maple’s size would cost them significant state tax credits, Marks said he had floated alternative funding sources to make up for that money should it be retracted.
“We can still advance toward meeting our [affordable housing] goals … with a smaller building,” he said. “And there is nothing wrong with asking a developer to modify a project instead of that [proposed] building standing for 60 or 70 years."
An administrative law judge has yet to decide whether or not to let the project proceed, and two hearings have been held this week, with attorneys Michael McCann representing complainants and Christopher Mudd representing Homes For America.