Housing activists upset over plans for renewal

Balto. County proposal ignores needs of the poor, critics say

February 14, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County's ambitious vision for revitalizing long-neglected neighborhoods is drawing criticism from housing activists troubled by its apparent exclusion of the poor.

Hoping to spur economic growth in areas bypassed by the current economic boom, Baltimore County is seeking the power to condemn property across large swaths of Essex-Middle River, Dundalk and Randallstown.

In each neighborhood, the county plans to obtain and clear land, then look for developers to build upscale homes, offices, stores and restaurants. The most ambitious proposal, in Essex-Middle River, would create a waterfront village designed to compete with Annapolis, Rock Hall and Oxford for the attention of the boating set.

But a bill introduced in the state legislature that would grant the county condemnation power contains a provision that troubles critics. The proposed legislation says that any property acquired by the county through eminent domain "may not be used for the development of multifamily housing."

That exclusion, activists say, would displace residents while offering no guarantee that they will be offered other housing choices.

"There can be high-end rental housing," said Deborah Povich, director of public policy for the Maryland Center for Community Development. "But just to categorically exclude a type of dwelling means that the people who need rental housing are going to be concentrated in other areas, and they are going to be excluded from these new, revitalized communities."

County officials say the three neighborhoods are blighted by cheap, poorly maintained apartments that attract crime and bring down surrounding property values. Even after those buildings are condemned and demolished, the county will have sufficient affordable housing, they say.

"We have massive numbers of low-rent housing in those areas, and we don't want to bring more into those areas," said David Fields, chief of the county's Office of Community Conservation.

Still, the complaints underscore long-standing weaknesses in Baltimore County's housing policy, and rekindle a decades-old debate over what role government programs should play in encouraging the construction of affordable housing.

The county's ambivalence dates at least to the tenure of former County Executive Spiro T. Agnew, who in 1966 first proposed urban renewal powers for the county that would allow it to condemn land and receive federal funds for low-income housing projects. His idea was widely decried by angry residents who feared city dwellers would be relocated to their communities. The plan was dropped.

"Baltimore County kind of has this attitude that `We got out of the city, so we're all set,' " said Stephen Broache, director of housing policy for Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

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