Planning board approves bill on lower-cost housing

The Baltimore Sun

The Planning Commission unanimously approved a bill last night that aims to mix lower-cost housing into all Baltimore neighborhoods.

Well over 100 advocates representing a politically powerful coalition of religious groups, urban advocacy organizations and unions packed the War Memorial Building to let the commission know that inclusionary housing legislation is necessary before Baltimore becomes as unaffordable as Washington.

But developers and builders showed up as well, to say that the bill could sour the city's rebounding real estate market.

Remarking on the months-long struggle to reach common ground on the concept, Andy Frank, Mayor Sheila Dixon's deputy mayor for development, quoted writer Samuel Johnson, saying, "Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome."

In Maryland, the only other jurisdictions with similar affordable-housing requirements are Montgomery and Frederick counties.

Quincey Gamble, the political director for 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers, said Baltimore is already unaffordable to many of his members.

"What is a shame," he said, "is that folks providing critical service to this community can't afford to live where they provide those services."

The legislation on the table is substantially weaker than a bill introduced last winter. At the time, a number of city agencies, including housing, finance, law and planning, declared the bill "undoable."

Though the original bill would have required affordable units be built into all residential projects, the revised version would immediately apply only to developers getting tax breaks or discounted land from the city.

The subsidized builders would have to reserve 20 percent of their projects' units for low- to moderate-income residents.

The coalition is pleased, however, that unlike the original bill, the new version would make sure units are set aside for the poorest people.

After a year and a half, the bill would apply to developers who benefit from rezonings. They would have to make 10 percent affordable.

The measure would expand to include projects not receiving subsidies or zoning changes only if most of the houses in the city's market become unaffordable under an equation to be determined as part of the bill.

A key aspect of the bill is that developers would not have to pay for the affordable units they would be required to build - the city would offset costs through subsidies, density bonuses and cash payments from a new inclusionary housing trust fund.

The original bill would have created a long-term cash stream for the trust fund, which voters endorsed on the Nov. 7 ballot. With 20 percent of the city's transfer tax, the coalition promoting the bill thought they would have about $10 million to work with annually.

The money instead will come from the city's general budget. For fiscal 2008, which will be the first year for the program if the bill passes, the budget allocation is expected to be $2 million, Frank said.

Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, told the commission Baltimore is already "the mother lode" of affordable housing in the region.

"[The bill] will yield relatively few houses at the highest possible cost," he said. "To subsidize 100 new homes at $100,000 apiece will cost $10 million. We're only starting with $2 million in the fund."

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