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."
Still, the complaints underscore long-standing weaknesses in Baltimore County's housing policy, and rekindle a decades-old debate over what role government programs should play in encouraging the construction of affordable housing.
History of ambivalence
The county's ambivalence dates at least to the tenure of former County Executive Spiro T. Agnew, who in 1966 first proposed urban renewal powers for the county that would allow it to condemn land and receive federal funds for low-income housing projects. His idea was widely decried by angry residents who feared city dwellers would be relocated to their communities. The plan was dropped.
County executives failed to adopt an urban renewal agenda during the 1970s.
In the 1980s, when county planners developed a vision for a planned community, Owings Mills, they promised that a portion of the housing built there would be set aside for families earning below-average wages. The promise went unfulfilled.
In the mid-1990s, residents of the county's east side rose in opposition to a federal program called Moving to Opportunity, which provided assistance to families trying to move from blighted neighborhoods to nicer surroundings. The program was abandoned in 1998 after four years of confrontation and acrimony.
With that history, it's no surprise that Baltimore County has never built, bought or managed a single public housing unit. While it distributes and manages Section 8 rental vouchers available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, landlords are not penalized if they refuse to accept the vouchers.
"Baltimore County kind of has this attitude that 'We got out of the city, so we're all set,' " said Stephen Broache, director of housing policy for Citizens Planning and Housing Association, based in Baltimore.
But well-run multifamily housing can strengthen neighborhoods, Broache said.
"We have lots of examples of well-maintained multifamily complexes throughout the region," he said. "I guess so many years of bad management have soured people in [the neighborhoods targeted for renewal], but there are still management companies and developers who can be responsible for the properties they develop. That can be one of the selection criteria that go into any kind of proposal for those areas."
County officials say their renewal strategy does not include multifamily housing because their primary goal is to lure and retain middle-class residents, stemming an outflow to Carroll, Harford and Howard counties during the past decade 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."
Most of Maryland's large urban counties have condemnation power, and can use it widely, said Pat Roddy, the county's chief lobbyist. Baltimore County would condemn land only within specific geographic boundaries.
The county's new strategy also reflects a change in philosophy. During the first five years of his administration, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger concentrated on more modest neighborhood projects such as rebuilding alleys, adding sidewalks and paving streets. But with a healthy economy and a large state budget surplus, the time has come to think more broadly, county officials say.
Because the neighborhoods targeted for renewal have felt neglected for years, officials say it's only fair to alleviate residents' concerns by assuring them that problem apartments will be gone for good.
"We wanted to be upfront with people about what our intentions are," said Michael Davis, a top aide to Ruppersberger. Eliminating blighted housing, he said, "is the whole purpose of the bill."