Housing activists upset over plans for renewal; Balto. Co. proposal ignores needs of poor, critics say


Baltimore County's ambitious vision for revitalizing long-neglected neighborhoods is drawing criticism from housing activists troubled by its apparent exclusion of the poor.

Hoping to spur economic growth in areas bypassed by the current economic boom, Baltimore County is seeking the power to condemn property across large swaths of Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown.

In each neighborhood, the county plans to obtain and clear land, then look for developers to build upscale homes, offices, stores and restaurants. The most ambitious proposal, in Essex-Middle River, would create a waterfront village designed to compete with Annapolis, Rock Hall and Oxford for the attention of the boating set.

But a bill introduced in the state legislature that would grant the county condemnation power contains a provision that troubles critics. The proposed legislation says that any property acquired by the county through eminent domain "may not be used for the development of multifamily housing."

That exclusion, activists say, would displace residents while offering no guarantee that they will be offered other housing choices.

"There can be high-end rental housing," said Deborah Povich, director of public policy for the Maryland Center for Community Development. "But just to categorically exclude a type of dwelling means that the people who need rental housing are going to be concentrated in other areas, and they are going to be excluded from these new, revitalized communities."

County officials say the three neighborhoods are blighted by cheap, poorly maintained apartments that attract crime and bring down surrounding property values. Even after those buildings are condemned and demolished, the county will have sufficient affordable housing, they say.

"We have massive numbers of low-rent housing in those areas, and we don't want to bring more into those areas," said David Fields, chief of the county's Office of Community Conservation. "There is a significant vacancy rate at the low end."

County officials say their renewal strategy does not include multifamily housing because their primary goal is to lure and keep middle-class residents, stemming an outflow to Carroll, Harford and Howard counties by families searching for better schools, more land and safer neighborhoods.

"This is not about displacing poor people," said state Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat who is sponsoring the bill as head of the Baltimore County delegation. "This is about significant community revitalization that is going to benefit all of Baltimore County."

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