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Historic housing crisis presents an opportunity for reform | COMMENTARY

Rocky Brown stands at the corner of E. Madison and Curley Streets, where a mural was painted in his honor (visible in background.) He is the president of his local community association (Bocek/Madison East End Community Association) and has lived in his home for 11 years. In December, he and his wife were facing eviction. December 22, 2020
Rocky Brown stands at the corner of E. Madison and Curley Streets, where a mural was painted in his honor (visible in background.) He is the president of his local community association (Bocek/Madison East End Community Association) and has lived in his home for 11 years. In December, he and his wife were facing eviction. December 22, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a historic housing crisis that has not yet been fully recognized. A study by the Aspen Institute reported last summer that an estimated 30 to 40 million people in America are at risk of eviction once federal, state and local eviction protections expire. Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders have either lost employment or have experienced substantially reduced wages that will result in lasting housing insecurity and, potentially, homelessness.

Notably, this is only the exacerbation of an existing crisis; not just in Maryland’s cities, but also throughout its suburbs. Maryland needs a “housing agenda” that pairs with the other relief programs being pursued in Annapolis. This crisis presents an opportunity to take on the persistent obstacles to affordable housing throughout our state and create a more equitable suburb.

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Housing advocates have identified a series of initiatives that must be undertaken to overcome the influence of self-interested property owners and to expand housing equity. These initiatives balance the interests of public participation and transparency with private property rights and expanded housing opportunities.

In 2017, California passed Senate Bill 35, which streamlined housing construction in counties and cities that fail to build enough housing to meet state mandated housing construction requirements. It also streamlined the approval of affordable housing projects that would otherwise be held up in years of administrative hearings.

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Here in Maryland, suburban homeowners are routinely stymieing affordable and middle-market housing in high opportunity areas. Regardless of what may be written in county code, these objectors are dictating land use policy by way of delay. The predictable result is that many housing developments allowed “by right” under the law are stopped due to the burdens of administrative process. For this reason, housing policy should be set at the state level based on exhaustive public input with minimal public participation at the plan approval stage. This will continue to facilitate a small-d democratic process, while preventing a handful of self-interested objectors from controlling policy for an entire jurisdiction.

Maryland must also remove regulatory obstacles to subsidized housing. In a given year, Maryland may have 20-30 housing projects that are financed with Low Income Housing Tax Credits. Such funds are awarded competitively based on the policy objectives set by the Department of Housing and Community Development and the past performance of the developer. State law should require that such developments may proceed by right and without any additional legal constraint related to roads or schools. These projects are rare and serve populations with the lowest income (around 40% of area median income). The Maryland Public Service Commission already prohibits localities from interfering with the construction of certain commercial solar facilities. The same should be true for housing projects vetted by the state housing department and awarded state or federal funds.

Further, housing affordability is not limited to “affordable housing.” Subsidized housing alone results in barbell income distribution, whereby housing is available for the very rich and very poor. Although most counties have inclusive zoning requirements (i.e., requiring a certain percentage of units to be sold at less than market value to qualified purchasers), the principles of supply and demand should also be invoked to expand housing affordability. Missing middle housing describes a range of multi-unit or clustered-housing types (apartments, condominiums and townhomes) that are compatible with single-family home design, but at a more accessible price point.

While inclusive zoning should be sustained and expanded, regulatory constraints on housing should be loosened to promote this “missing middle” component of the market. Moreover, policymakers should recognize and encourage the market response of older housing stock becoming more affordable as newer, more expensive, housing stock comes on line.

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And finally, while single-family detached zones are being abolished across the country, a much more modest step is available in the allowance of Multi-Unit Dwellings and Accessory Dwelling Units in single-family detached zones (SFD). This is, in effect, the same outcome of “abolishing” SFD zones, but with a less revolutionary flare. There will always be a market for detached homes and exclusively detached neighborhoods, but an inclusive housing policy must allow for diverse housing products within those neighborhoods, which will result in more diverse schools and communities.

We all need food, clothing and shelter to survive. While our social safety net is often prepared to address the first two, housing is often left behind. Maryland must undertake a comprehensive housing plan in the wake of this crisis, which will not only create a more equitable suburb, but a more sustainable Maryland.

Tom Coale (tcoale@talkin-oh.com) is a land use and zoning attorney in Ellicott City, Maryland. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership.

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