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Baltimore County zoning laws abused to further segregation | COMMENTARY

I’m proud to have called Maryland my home for the past 26 years. After spending my childhood on army bases all over the world, my family settled here when I was a teenager, and I’ve lived all over the state since then. My own family and I now live in a Baltimore County neighborhood where people stood up last summer to say Black Lives Matter by organizing marches and discussing the critical need for change in our society.

I was initially excited to see these efforts happening because I’ve been working for over a decade to reform local, state and national drug and criminal justice policies that have disproportionately harmed people of color in our state and beyond. I got into this work because of my own experience being incarcerated in Maryland and on probation in Baltimore City. As a white man navigating these systems, I benefited in so many ways from the privilege that comes with the color of my skin. I saw firsthand how economic and racial disparities permeate all areas of our society including law enforcement, health care, schools and housing.

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Yet, I was ultimately disappointed when many of these same neighbors who vocally supported Black Lives Matter simultaneously backed efforts to change zoning laws to prohibit proposed multi-dwelling housing in our community, successfully using the County Council to close the door on families who are looking for a home to call their own.

And our community in the county isn’t the only one. Under a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Baltimore County is required to add 1,000 units of affordable housing by 2027. The county is behind on fulfilling its promise due to community resistance to affordable housing and the power of the county council to decide which projects move forward.

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This hearkens back to our despicable history of redlining and racial covenants, where government, bankers, real estate agents and residents collaborated to relegate lower income and overwhelmingly Black families to less desirable neighborhoods where they had less access to health services, good schools and economic opportunities. And while the practice of redlining may have officially ended, the resulting disparities are as alive as ever. This is the very definition of systemic racism.

The proposed development in my area off Pot Spring Road in Lutherville-Timonium, a vibrant community full of economic opportunity, is a perfect example. Duplexes in the development would have offered a more affordable housing option so more families could own a home here and have greater access to jobs and good schools than in other parts of the county. Instead of welcoming the additional housing and opportunities for homeownership, the neighborhoods here organized a campaign to change zoning laws and ensure the housing supply in the area stayed smaller and more expensive.

The signs that popped up in front yards all over the neighborhood beseeching us to “Save Pot Spring” — many times alongside signs declaring that Black Lives Matter — purported to be about limiting street traffic and keeping schools from becoming overcrowded. But in reality, they were about maintaining the status quo for upper-middle-class, overwhelmingly white families at the expense of other families who deserve an opportunity to own a home.

Our neighborhood also isn’t the only one in Baltimore County where residents and politicians have organized to prevent affordable housing development. Last year’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process was replete with examples of residents, business groups and homeowners’ associations demanding a stop to efforts to develop more affordable housing in the county. One development was squashed in Pikesville last year when the County Council refused to change zoning laws to permit its construction. Another development in Towson received approval in March but was quickly appealed by neighbors. This is how redlining is done in the 21st century.

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Being Black or brown is not synonymous with being poor, and plenty of white people would benefit from a growing stock of affordable housing options. But part of the legacy of racism is a wealth gap that leaves the average white family in America with $171,000 in household wealth versus $17,000 for Black families. Homeownership is a huge part of that gap.

If Baltimore County residents really believe that Black Lives Matter, we should welcome the opportunity to make our communities more accessible to people of all backgrounds and actively work to dismantle the structures of systemic racism — especially when those structures are in our own backyards.

Mark L. O’Brien (Twitter @MarklObrien) is executive director of Trauma Informed Inc. He is working on a memoir of his experience of grief, guilt and the criminal justice system.

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