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HUD imperils the Columbia dream

Leslie Glassberg, of Columbia, waves a pink pom-pom while joining a few dozen others in a May rally on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia for more affordable housing.
Leslie Glassberg, of Columbia, waves a pink pom-pom while joining a few dozen others in a May rally on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia for more affordable housing. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Gro / Patuxent Publishing)

This summer, when he announced a landmark change in policy designed to reduce residential segregation, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro had Baltimore squarely in mind. He made several references to the city in his speech, and for good reason. A century after it pioneered racially exclusionary housing policies, Baltimore remains home to some of the most deeply segregated pockets of poverty in the nation.

That makes it all the more perplexing that his agency is pursuing a rule change that would make it more difficult for the region's poor to live in Columbia — a community that not only provides far greater opportunity than segregated, inner city neighborhoods but has a history and culture of actually supporting inclusionary housing. For decades, HUD has considered Columbia as a special case when calculating rent limits for its Section 8 voucher program, but now it is proposing to lump the community in with the rest of the Baltimore region, which would result in about a 25 percent cut. The effect would be to price low income families out of much of Columbia and render more difficult Howard County's own efforts to foster the vision of socio-economic diversity on which the community was founded.

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The Baltimore region has a poor track record when it comes to acceptance of policies designed to help low-income, inner-city residents move to the suburbs. The Move to Opportunity program of the 1990s was met with widespread hostility, and the Baltimore County Council as recently as 2013 voted 6-0 to reject state funding for a low-income housing project in Rosedale amid fears of increased crime. In January, an Anne Arundel councilman railed against those who receive rent subsidies as "freeloaders" and not "quality people" and said they shouldn't live in the county.

Columbia is a different story. The community's downtown is in the midst of a major redevelopment that is expected to include thousands of new residential units in the coming decades. This spring, the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., a non-profit group that acts as a watchdog on affordable housing issues, produced a report critical that the units that had been approved to that point did not include any that would be available to low-income residents. The master developer, Howard Hughes Corp., came back a few months later with a proposal that would result in about 1,000 affordable units in the coming years. It wasn't universally embraced by the community, but the objections were couched in terms of traffic and parking, not crime and "quality people."

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Somewhere else, a Republican county executive might have cheered HUD's proposal to lower rent limits, or at least remained conspicuously silent about them. But Howard's Allan Kittleman this week sent a letter to members of the state's congressional delegation asking them to stop the change, saying it was "contrary to Howard County's and HUD's goal of providing diverse, integrated communities and affirmatively furthering fair housing." He said Howard County residents recognize that the community has a high cost of living but are also committed to the idea that people who work there should be able to live there. Now, though, Mr. Kittleman says he worries that HUD's change could endanger the economics of the affordable housing plan for Columbia.

(Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, has also been a standout among suburban leaders in supporting affordable housing, a notable distinction given his county's politics. He not only spoke against the council's rejection of the Rosedale affordable housing project but has also started a fund to provide incentives for developers to include affordable units in their projects. Other changes in HUD rules would make it more difficult for Section 8 recipients to live in Baltimore County, though the effect isn't as drastic as in Columbia.)

Sen. Barbara Mikulski this week sent her own letter to Mr. Castro expressing her perplexity at the seeming contradiction between the policy he stated this summer and the changes his agency is making with regard to Maryland rent limits. "HUD can't have it both ways," she wrote in a letter co-signed by Sen. Ben Cardin and Reps. Elijah Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes.

A HUD spokeswoman told The Sun's Natalie Sherman that the changes in the Baltimore region were a result of a regular agency review, which found that the higher rent limits weren't helping reduce the concentration of Section 8 recipients in high-poverty areas. So, if offering higher subsidies hasn't helped people move to areas of greater opportunity, HUD thinks lower ones might do the trick?

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Columbia's history of inclusiveness serves as an important counterpoint to Baltimore's legacy of segregation. It can and should be a showpiece for how residents, developers and federal, state and local governments can work together to create an economically diverse community. Now is not the time to pull back on that vision.

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