Putting teeth in Baltimore's affordable housing law

A bid to keep Baltimore City's affordable housing law on the books after 2012 passed a major hurdle last week when a key City Council committee voted to extend the measure indefinitely. Now it's up to the full council to ratify the committee's decision when it takes up the matter at its regular meeting tonight. Lawmakers should make this law permanent and then work to strengthen its powers.

The affordable housing law has been on the books since 2007. It requires developers to set aside a certain percentage of residential units for low-income families in large projects that receive public subsidies. The idea is to prevent the growth of concentrated pockets of poverty in the city by allowing low-income families to move into neighborhoods of opportunity that offer better access to good schools, parks, grocery stores and other amenities.

Despite its good intentions, however, no one claims the law has worked as well as intended. The problems started before it was even passed, when developers loaded the bill with a raft of crippling amendments and loopholes big enough to drive a construction crane through. Those provisions, of almost diabolical complexity, effectively gutted the city's enforcement powers by prohibiting the law from kicking in unless a developer wanted it to. Not surprisingly, few did. It's no wonder only a handful of affordable housing units have actually been built in the four years since the ordinance was passed.

Moreover, opponents of the measure saddled it with a sunset provision that would have caused it to expire automatically next year. Coming just as the housing market was beginning to collapse, that sent a terrible signal about the city's long-term commitment to new affordable housing. Developers could sit on their hands until the market rebounded, then reap the profits from as many publicly subsidized high-end condos and rental units as they wished, without any obligation to low- and moderate-income families.

Now that the City Council's transportation and land use committee has voted to drop the law's sunset provision, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the city's planning and housing department are urging council members to extend the affordable housing law, but only until 2020. They argue more time is needed to study the measure's effectiveness and to give the battered housing market a chance to recover. We hope the council rejects this advice and sides with Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who is pushing for a permanent extension.

As it is, the city has been dragging its feet about setting up an inclusive housing board to monitor compliance with the ordinance, as required by the law. Nor has the housing department completed any of the reports it was supposed to submit to the board, or finished drafting the regulations needed to put the law into effect. Where's the guarantee that if the measure is only temporarily extended, the city won't resort to the same kind of stalling tactics for the next eight years? And if the law turns out to be bad, the council can always vote to repeal it.

The truth is, there never was a need for a sunset provision on the original legislation — most city laws don't have them — and there certainly isn't now. The only advantage of such riders is that they force supporters of the measure to spend their time defending the law rather than improving it. The council should reject such political games by voting to make the law permanent, then working to make it more effective than it has been in the past.

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