Pass the group-home law

December 17, 1993

One in five Baltimore County residents is 60 or older. The county has more senior citizens than any other Maryland jurisdiction. And it has a rate of senior-population growth second only to Dade County, Fla., in all the United States.

Yet faced with these jarring statistics, the local government has been woefully slow to provide "assisted-living," neighborhood-based group homes that each serve from four to 15 seniors. In fact, since Maryland started the program 17 years ago, group residences have been established in every state jurisdiction, except in Baltimore County.

So it seems all too fitting that the council, on the verge of finally approving a bill cutting much of the expensive and time-consuming red tape that has discouraged private operators from opening group homes, has balked at approving the measure.

The council's debate last Tuesday was noteworthy not just for what it failed to achieve but also for the insensitivity expressed by certain members of the panel.

The worst offender was Republican Doug Riley of Towson, who punctuated his expressed doubts about the bill by stating, "I don't want to raise a family of little kids between two houses of old people."

To find a more perfect expression of NIMBYism would be tough to do. It's bad enough when citizens repeatedly mouth the selfish not-in-my-back-yard line; it seems even worse when an elected leader does it.

We also have to wonder what could have motivated Mr. Riley and Republican Berchie Manley of Catonsville, a senior herself and the other opponent of the legislation, to take an anti-senior stance when so many of their constituents are "old people" who vote.

Politically savvy, it wasn't.

Nor does their opposition make practical sense. As group home advocates point out, residents enjoy more personal service and a homier atmosphere than normally found at nursing institutions, and at a fraction of the cost of a typical nursing home's care. Also, the county would save money by reducing the number of nursing-home residents for whom it provides advocacy -- a costly process in terms of staff hours and public dollars -- and would increase the supply of pleasant, affordable housing for the county's many seniors.

Council leaders are discussing a compromise that would lower the resident-per-home limit to 10 or so. If that's what it takes, the council should act on it as soon as possible and pass this law that should have been on the county books long ago.

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