The head of the Baltimore City Council has withdrawn her support from an effort to streamline the opening of city group homes, a decision that could trigger a costly federal lawsuit.
Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake said she will not vote for legislation proposed by Mayor Sheila Dixon that would create more housing for drug addicts and other disabled people. The proposal, Rawlings-Blake said, "does not provide adequate safeguards for neighborhoods."
"I made some suggestions based on things I was hearing that would have made it more palatable, but it still was not palatable to many communities," she said. "It is a down economy, neighborhoods are fighting for stability. They are seeing this as one more thing that potentially weakens them."
While the City Council president has just one vote on legislation, her position is influential. Federal authorities wrote to Rawlings-Blake in December, saying that they don't believe the bill will pass without her support and that they will seek a civil rights lawsuit to bring the city's code in line with the Americans with Disabilities and Fair Housing acts.
Advocates, hoping to revive the legislation, plan to hold a rally in front of City Hall today.
Lawyers with the Department of Justice's civil rights division investigated the city's zoning code last year after advocates alleged in a legal complaint that city zoning creates undue hardships for those hoping to open state-licensed group homes because each project requires council approval.
Dixon, in December 2007, proposed legislation that would strip the City Council of the authority to veto licensed group homes, and federal authorities support the legislative fix. Unlicensed homes, which provide less care, do not require council approval.
The mayor says the cash-strapped city can ill afford defending against a federal suit and said failing to fix problems in the city's code is "very irresponsible."
"We've been back and forth on this group home issue for a number of years," Dixon said. She said the council needs to understand "the ramifications of what it is going to cost the city."
The controversy around the legislation can be measured by the size of the bill file in City Hall, which contains a 3-inch stack of legal analyses and letters from community groups - some of which support the change and some of which don't.
One public hearing last summer lasted five hours, and the sign-in sheet for those testifying ran to 11 pages.
Under Dixon's legislation, homes with eight or fewer clients could open in any city neighborhood.
Similar attempts to remove City Council authority when Martin O'Malley was mayor were unsuccessful.
Dixon's bill would allow homes treating people with all federally recognized disabilities to open without City Council approval.
The current law "is not defensible," said Ellen M. Weber, a law professor at the University of Maryland who has been advocating for seven years to change the city's zoning law. "You are saying that people with disabilities need to go though a separate standard."
Drug treatment advocates, who say there are waiting lists to get into current facilities, are also pushing the change. There are 25 such facilities, according to the Baltimore Health Department.
"Licensed drug treatment is part of the solution," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "It is not part of the problem."
He estimated that the bill would result in a "modest increase" in drug treatment facilities. "The thought that these would be popping up all over the place is completely fanciful," he said. "It would give more flexibility to the system."
Gale Saler, a director at a drug treatment nonprofit called Gaudenzia, described a laborious process for winning council approval when he wanted to open a new center in Northwest Baltimore. He picked a building in an industrial district that he called "a neighborhood dumping ground for old industrial parts and old cars," and he garnered support from the Abell Foundation, Weinberg Foundation, the mayor's office, the city Health Department and the council member who represented the place where he wanted to build a home. Still, it took a year for the necessary city legislation to pass.
But opponents worry that lifting council oversight would mean group homes would be clustered in a few city neighborhoods that have large, inexpensive housing stock.
Shadid Tamir Abdul-Rahim, a board member of the Howard Park Civic Association, lives on a block that contains two group homes. "Our community is going to become an institution," he said. Group home residents are unlikely to vote or participate in community civic life, he said. "The city should be concentrating on getting the professional to move back to the city so they can pay taxes," Abdul-Rahim said. Community activists in Lauraville also dislike the measure.
Such concerns are underlined by the city's uneven record of enforcing code complaints on the unlicensed facilities, Rawlings-Blake said. The administration offered to create a position for a citywide coordinator to hear complaints for licensed and unlicensed homes, but many council members are not convinced that would be adequate.
"Our constituents have to be convinced that once the legislation is in place it will be enforced," Rawlings-Blake said. "There are people who do not trust that their neighborhoods will be protected."