City housing program stirs fears in Baltimore County

County councilman: "There should have been some level of notification" that city was moving poor to suburbs.

Some Baltimore County officials expressed irritation Monday that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City didn't tell them when it purchased suburban homes as city public housing.

"It's being done in a subterranean manner," said County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson. "There should have been some level of notification."

Others were supportive of the initiative — and a companion effort to provide rent subsidies — saying both work well with regional efforts to expand affordable housing options.

Over the past eight years, the city housing authority spent $12 million to purchase nearly 30 houses in Baltimore County and 16 in Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties to serve as public housing for Baltimore residents, a Baltimore Sun investigation found. The city agency also has been providing $51 million in rent subsidies to nearly 3,100 families who have moved from city public housing to private apartments or houses in prosperous suburban neighborhoods, primarily in Howard and Baltimore counties.

The discreet rollout of the court-ordered programs highlights how difficult it has been to dismantle Baltimore's segregated, impoverished neighborhoods through regional housing cooperation. Both efforts were ordered by the landmark lawsuit, Thompson v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that found the federal agency had failed to take a regional approach to desegregating Baltimore's public housing.

Suburban developments that propose setting aside units for low-income tenants often attract intense opposition, leading to their defeat and discouraging future projects. Fair housing advocates have long been pushing for state and local governments in Maryland to do more to abide by federal civil rights housing laws. Freddie Gray's death and the ensuing rioting has focused new attention on the issue.

Advocates say county agencies need to pass laws to prohibit landlords from rejecting tenants because they have rent subsidies. Counties also should enact inclusionary housing rules requiring developers to set aside units for low-income tenants, housing groups say. Baltimore County and Maryland's housing department are both negotiating resolutions to housing discrimination complaints filed against them with HUD.

Their efforts were bolstered this year by a Supreme Court ruling and a new HUD rule that puts new pressure on local government to locate subsidized housing outside of such areas.

Two state lawmakers from Baltimore County said Monday they expect to explore the volatile issue of affordable housing during the upcoming General Assembly session in Annapolis.

"I think it's one of those issues that people are either for or against," said Del. Stephen W. Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Lafferty has sponsored legislation in the past that has been routinely defeated that would enact a statewide prohibition on landlords from turning away tenants with rent subsidies, known commonly as Section 8 vouchers.

"When one sees there are property owners who are willing to accept vouchers in certain parts of the county and not others, it denies the further opportunities people want," Lafferty said.

He said he is considering whether to reintroduce the legislation, known as the HOME act.

Baltimore County has been accused of supporting affordable housing for seniors in prosperous communities but not projects for low-income families. One of the main reasons for that, Lafferty said, is because developers know that family housing projects will generate resistance that often scuttles their projects.

"That's indicative of people acting out of fear rather than out of reality," he said.

The city's programs appear to be working well, he said. "It's unfortunate that [such programs] have to be done more quietly," he said.

Sen. Jim Brochin, a Towson Democrat, said he plans to question County Executive Kevin Kamenetz about the lack of public notice by the city and about the screening that selects families for the suburban relocations.

"It's pretty clear they bypassed the legislature," Brochin said. "I've never heard anything from [former County Executive James T. Smith] or Kamenetz. I just want to know more about it."

Brochin also said he will work to defeat any source-of-income proposal that may be introduced in the 2016 session. "I don't think it's constitutional," he said. "You shouldn't have to force someone to do business with" tenants with subsidies.

Marks agreed and said the County Council would never support such a law. Only Howard County, Annapolis and Baltimore have laws that restrict or prohibit landlords from turning away tenants because of subsidies.

"I don't see us ever doing that," Marks said.

He added that the programs could have been more effective if the city had worked with council members who could suggest places to purchase homes that are close to public transit, jobs and other services.

"When you locate poor families into the suburbs, are you just spreading poverty around the region?" Marks said.

He said constituents had called him after reading The Sun article to complain that people who could not otherwise afford to live in Towson are being given an opportunity others do not get.

"I have plenty of constituents who are living at the margins," Marks said. "They're struggling to pay $1,000 rent for an apartment and they don't qualify for these types of benefits. They're pretty upset by it."

Catonsville resident Veronica Walters was furious when she read about the programs. The 73-year-old retired dental assistant said white and black middle-class families are frustrated that low-income people can live in homes they did not work hard to attain.

"We have worked for years in order to have a house in the county, and the government is pushing people out here," she said. "They don't deserve to have what my family worked hard for. It's a shame we didn't know about this ahead of time. I would have been right there protesting."

Robert Strupp, executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a fair housing advocacy group, said such attitudes are the main reason the city programs have had to operate without public notice.

"What I really took away from this was the fact that in order to get subsidized housing into the suburbs, you have to be sneaky about it," Strupp said. "Because if they found out about it in advance, they wouldn't let it happen. That's the sign to me that discrimination still exists. It's classic NIMBY-ism. That's today's reality just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s."

County Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he was not bothered by the lack of public notice about the purchases of homes by the housing authority.

"I thought about the children who are caught up with these parents who need the help," Jones said. "When I hear these children are doing well I can't help but think about the savings to society."

The rental subsidy program, managed by nonprofit Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, has succeeded where other similar relocation programs have faltered. With extensive counseling support, tenants who move with rent subsidies to more prosperous neighborhoods have stayed far longer than in past programs. Health, school performance and other factors have improved for the families who moved, especially the children.

Nowhere is that needed more than in Baltimore, which ranked as the worst city for children to escape poverty, according to research by Harvard University economist Raj Chetty.

His research found that poor children whose families move away from poor neighborhoods do far better later in life in terms of income, employment and education than those who did not relocate. Concentrations of poverty drag down the economy of entire regions, Chetty said.

"We should all be interested in having communities that are more integrated," he said. Baltimore's program "seems to be quite successful."

Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the NAACP, one of the groups that filed the housing complaint against Baltimore County, said homeowners, policy makers and landlords have to work together to overcome past and present fears motivated by race and class.

"Our hope is that that day will come in Baltimore County," he said.

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