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Moving on from 50 years of housing discrimination

Wednesday column on HUD-Baltimore County agreement

Tell me if this sounds familiar: A politician runs such a racially divisive campaign for office that he garners the support of the Ku Klux Klan. His blatant bigotry sends disgusted members of his own party flocking to the opposition.

As current as all that sounds, given the ascendancy of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential campaign, I refer to something that happened 50 years ago in Maryland: A Democrat who ran for governor with the slogan: "Your home is your castle, protect it."

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That old dog whistle came from the lips of the late George P. Mahoney, a wealthy Baltimore County businessman who narrowly won the Democratic nomination in 1966. In the midst of the civil rights movement and the start of white flight to the suburbs from Baltimore, he declared opposition to any law that would take away the right of a homeowner to sell or rent his home to anyone he wanted.

It was a fear tactic, of course, a call to whites that a vote for Mahoney was a vote to keep blacks from buying homes anywhere they liked and could afford.

Mahoney's candidacy split the Democrats and guaranteed victory in the general election for Spiro T. Agnew, the Republican Baltimore County executive. Compared to Mahoney, Agnew was seen as a moderate at the time. (He went on from governor to become Richard Nixon's vice-president.)

Though Mahoney lost the 1966 election, his campaign certainly left a mark on Maryland — and on his home county, which became even whiter as the years went by and the county grew.

"Between 1950 and 1970, rapid suburbanization supported by public policies more than doubled the population of Baltimore County and jobs increased 182 percent, yet its share of black population declined from 6.7 percent in 1950 to three percent in 1970."

That's from a fact sheet prepared by housing advocates who have been working long and hard to end decades of housing discrimination in Baltimore County.

All that history, including Mahoney's overtly racist attack on open-housing laws, came to mind Tuesday with news that county and federal housing officials have struck an agreement to end decades of discrimination and make room in the county for people whose presence it has resisted since practically forever: low-income, mostly black families.

The agreement will not force Baltimore County to build public housing — something elected officials since Agnew's time rejected, forcing the concentration of poor, black families into the city — but it will encourage the development of affordable housing. The county will spend $30 million over the next decade to help the private and nonprofit sectors build 1,000 homes for low-income, minority families in "opportunity neighborhoods," places that do not have high concentrations of poverty.

And that applies to large stretches of the county, where median household income is well above poverty, at nearly $67,000 annually.

The agreement also means 2,000 more housing vouchers so low-income families can move to the county's better neighborhoods.

The agreement, worked out with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is supported by research that documents a long history of county resistance to providing decent housing to people based on their race and class: Apartment complexes that refused to rent to blacks, zoning changes that eliminated black enclaves, and a series of broken pledges by the county to change its discriminatory ways. Those trends continued through the 1990s, with promised affordable housing in White Marsh and Owings Mills never materializing.

As recently as 2013, the County Council rejected state funds for a housing development for low-income families in Rosedale. It was a bad decision: The housing units would have been available to residents who earned less than 60 percent of the county's median income — the working poor, many of whom already lived somewhere in the county. It was a lease-to-own deal, too; residents would have been able to buy the houses after 15 years.

The problem with the new agreement is that it still leaves the council with the power to kill such developments, and it leaves landlords with the right to refuse to take tenants who need a government voucher to afford a place.

Still, this is a major step forward by a county that, despite a history of resistance, becomes more diverse each year. It shows a savvy awareness by the administration of Kevin Kamenetz, the county executive, that HUD and housing advocates had a strong case; the county would have lost in court, especially in light of last year's Supreme Court ruling that even unintentional discrimination in housing is illegal. And the agreement shows acceptance, at long last, of a principle supported by mounds of research: The children of the working poor do better when, with a little help, they get to live in better neighborhoods.

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"We can't change the past," said Tony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, "but Baltimore County can now do better going forward."

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