Baltimore County’s affordable housing settlement with the federal government cuts to the core of how the county is changing and whether its leaders have the wisdom and political courage to steer it toward a stronger future. The county has rapidly diversified in terms of race and, perhaps more importantly, socio-economic status during the last few decades, and unless the county takes affirmative steps now to foster inclusion, it risks developing the areas of deeply concentrated poverty that have so plagued Baltimore City. Some communities in the county are already trending in that direction. The settlement with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development isn’t a panacea, but it moves the county meaningfully in the direction of economic and racial integration. Without it, the county will be increasingly divided and prone to costly social problems. It’s by no means the only issue on which voters should judge candidates for county executive, but it’s a big one.
The settlement has two major components. The first is an agreement by the county to subsidize the construction of 1,000 new affordable housing units in “high opportunity” communities. The Sun’s Pam Wood reports that the county has met its goals so far but that the requirements are about to get much tougher. Twenty units have been built so far, with many others in the approval process, but by the end of the year, 150 need to be built with 100 more every year thereafter for the next eight years. The second key element of the agreement is a requirement that the county executive introduce legislation banning “source of income” discrimination, meaning that landlords would not be able to reject tenants solely because they use federal Section 8 vouchers. The idea is to avoid concentrated poverty and instead foster communities where people of varying income levels live. Current County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has introduced the anti-discrimination legislation, known as the HOME Act, and has argued for the importance of the settlement generally. Enthusiasm for it among those running to replace him is notably weaker.
The two Republicans running for county executive, Del. Pat McDonough and Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer Jr., seem to be in a competition over who can oppose the settlement more. Mr. Redmer said in his response to a questionnaire from The Sun’s editorial board that he opposes the agreement and the process by which it was negotiated. He described the HOME Act as an infringement on property rights. Mr. McDonough has said he would sue to try to get out of the settlement and blames (as he is wont to do) Baltimore City and its residents for all ills. City residents moving to the county for the chance of a better life are, to Mr. McDonough, as Central American refugees are to President Donald Trump.
Among the Democrats, things aren’t necessarily better. City Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who voted against the HOME Act, acknowledges the problem of housing inequality and concentrated poverty but doesn’t believe the HUD settlement is the way to address it. She offers instead only a vague conviction that the problem can be solved if we could only bring “all parties at the table to work towards a solution.” However concerned she may be about inequality, the upshot of her position is the same as those of Messrs. Redmer and McDonough. State Sen. Jim Brochin is better, saying he would uphold the agreement and would seek to enact affordable housing requirements for large-scale developments, but he does not support the HOME Act, and as a member of the legislature, he questioned a small-scale program that quietly helped some low-income Baltimore residents move to more affluent neighborhoods in the suburbs. By far the best of the lot on this issue is former Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., whose only criticism of the settlement appears to be that it doesn’t do enough to address the problems of inequality. He supports the HOME Act and wants to develop a broader set of policies related to improving equity not only in housing but also in economic opportunity.
What HUD is requiring of the county is really quite modest — 1,000 affordable units in a county with a total of 337,000 houses and apartments, and the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation that would still allow landlords to reject tenants for a whole host of reasons, from bad credit to a criminal record to poor references from previous landlords. If most of the candidates for county executive can’t even support that, we’re in trouble.
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