Housing bill targets income diversity

City builders would have to sell some homes at lower cost

November 30, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun Reporter

The City Council is set to consider legislation that would require developers to include affordable units in all Baltimore residential projects - a controversial proposal, but one almost guaranteed to pass in an election year with the backing of a powerful and politically connected coalition of religious groups, urban advocacy organizations and unions.

Though a similar move fizzled last year, officials say that now the time is right and the need for lower-cost housing in Baltimore more acute. City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young says he will introduce the bill next week.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who becomes mayor in January and has been a strong proponent of affordable housing, is expected to champion the issue along with the majority of the council.

"She believes through the prosperity we're experiencing right now, people from all walks of life need to afford to live in the city in clean, safe neighborhoods," said Ruffin Brown, executive director of Dixon's office. "How we get there is something we'll be working on in the near future."

Michael Sarbanes, executive director of Citizens Planning and Housing Association, who has been leading a regional effort urging public officials to do something about affordable housing, applauds the bill.

"I think there's a tangible sense that the city is at a fork in the road, and the question in front of us is how do we want to grow and where do we want to be?" Sarbanes said. "The way to build a strong, vibrant, interesting city is to have all kinds of different people. There's got to be a place for everybody."

Residential developers, who would be required to reserve as much as 20 percent of the units in a project for low- or moderate-income people, say the legislation could ruin profit margins and have a chilling effect on growth in the city.

"I think a lot of projects will go on the shelf. They'll just sit," said Mark Sapperstein, who is developing a number of residential projects in the city. "You'll have a complete lockdown, and that's not good for anybody.

Added Jake Ruppert of Ruppert Homes: "Anyone suggesting this bill will not have an impact and that people will continue to make a great deal of money in Baltimore City is not correct."

In Maryland, the only other jurisdictions with affordable housing mandates, known as "inclusionary housing" laws, are Montgomery and Frederick counties. Officials say that in Montgomery, where a program like the one Baltimore is considering has been in place for decades, it is not hampering development.

Affordable housing bills are also under discussion in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

In Baltimore, an inclusionary zoning bill with considerably less teeth than the one being introduced next week died in a City Council committee after passing the Planning Commission last year.

Since then, Sarbanes believes, the city has become more aware of housing needs - in no small part because of the coalition's barrage of advocacy efforts. A month ago, for instance, hundreds of religious leaders met at a North Baltimore church and asked elected officials to step to the altar and, one by one, promise to support affordable housing initiatives.

"How can you say no to all of these major organizations that have the community and citizens at heart? We probably represent the majority of people that live in the city," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It behooves [the council] to address this issue because next year is an election year for them."

In addition to establishing a complex set of rules that dictate how inclusionary development will work in the city, the bill would create a funding stream for an affordable housing trust fund that voters endorsed on the Nov. 7 ballot.

It would funnel 20 percent of the city's transfer taxes and recordation fees into the fund - filling it with what Sarbanes estimates could be $10 million or more a year.

The legislation would also set up an Inclusionary Housing Board to consider exceptions to the law and measure its effectiveness.

Though the law aims to create situations where people of mixed incomes are living side by side, it wouldn't necessarily require developers to include affordable units on site. For instance, with a project like the Ritz-Carlton condominiums going up at the Inner Harbor, where units are selling for millions, the law would allow the developer to provide affordable units elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Sarbanes said the bill won't be a silver bullet to solve all of Baltimore's housing problems. But he believes that by helping to build a reserve of affordable homes and apartments, it could help ward off a situation like that in Washington, where vast swaths of the district are essentially unaffordable - even to some white-collar professionals.

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