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Baltimore County housing discrimination continues, despite mitigation efforts | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans in 2019 to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announces plans in 2019 to introduce legislation that will make housing discrimination illegal. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

A change in Baltimore County law nearly two years ago to settle a federal housing discrimination lawsuit was supposed to make it easier for people using federal vouchers to find a decent place to live. Many had been shut out for years because of landlord bias. Unfortunately, even federal scrutiny hasn’t changed old ways of thinking.

Despite an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the county to add a total of 1,000 affordable units by 2027, and a commitment by County Executive John “Johnny” Olszewski Jr. and the County Council to see it through, there has been widespread pushback, to the point that some developers say it is too prohibitive to build in the county. Last year, the county fell short of its annual goal of 570 units, approving just 546.

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Mr. Olszewski received much-deserved credit early in his term for forcing the equal housing issue to the forefront, but now he needs to be just as aggressive at making sure the county meets its obligation. It was after he came into office that the County Council finally voted in favor of a settlement, albeit a close vote (4-3) along party lines. Mr. Olszewski is off to a good start with his proposal to create a Department of Housing and Community Development that would make sure the county complies with the agreement with the federal government as well as manage other issues, such as affordable housing, homelessness, eviction prevention, tenant counseling and homeownership. An Affordable Housing Work Group is also looking at ways to meet the affordable housing goal. But we want to see Mr. Olszewski execute the same political sway he used previously to change the way the county views affordable housing and people on vouchers, a varied group that can include the elderly and disabled.

Too many communities still resist this type of housing, and while they come up with many excuses as to why, such as traffic and overcrowding, we can’t help but think there is a form of bias at play. Affordable housing tenants are often painted with a broad brush as unreliable and prone to destruction of property — problem tenants — even though there is no evidence to support this. Attorneys for housing advocates also told The Sun’s Alison Knezevich and Taylor Deville that council members are influencing the zoning process and preventing projects from moving forward. This works against the intent of the settlement and is shameful.

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Many of the new units that have made it through the process are located in the western part of the county, setting the stage for affordable housing to end up concentrated in certain regions, rather than dispersed throughout, as required by the HUD agreement. Council Chairman Julian Jones, who represents many of the communities, including parts of Reisterstown, Owings Mills, Woodlawn and Randallstown, told The Sun he would not accept any more such housing in his district. He is right to stand up and needs to keep his megaphone loud. Once again that is not the intent of the agreement and only creates concentrated poverty.

Landlords, residents and lawmakers in Baltimore County need to stop what is in effect widespread discrimination of people based on their income. Mr. Olszewski once said the county had both a “legal” and a “moral” obligation to provide affordable housing to county residents. Right now the county isn’t meeting either. The question is: What more is he going to do about it?

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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