Housing proposal facing friction

Some city agencies seek to restrict bill being considered by council to ensure affordable units

December 05, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

The leaders of some city agencies are pushing to significantly restrict legislation that would require developers to include affordable units in all Baltimore residential projects, but the City Council sponsors of the bill are sticking by their original plan.

Members of a politically connected coalition of religious groups, urban advocacy organizations and unions who have been pushing for affordable housing reform had strong words - and blunt threats - yesterday for those who might want to weaken the initiative.

"It's imperative you start out with a strong bill," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and one of dozens of advocates who rallied outside City Hall yesterday to demonstrate the depth of support behind the bill.

"These groups that support this represent the majority of Baltimore City. If the council won't listen to them, we're going kick them out of office. They'll pay for it in September," he said.

Added the Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church downtown: "There will be attempts to sabotage this bill, to take its guts out. We're not going to let that happen."

The bill - formally introduced last night - would require residential developers who get major subsidies or who benefit from significant rezoning to reserve as much as 20 percent of the units in a project for low- or moderate-income people. Developers working without subsidies or rezoning would have to offer 10 percent of their project for affordable use.

The legislation would also create a funding stream for an inclusionary housing trust that voters endorsed on the Nov. 7 ballot. Twenty percent of the city's transfer taxes and recordation fees could fill the fund with $10 million or more a year.

The bill also would set up an inclusionary housing board to consider exceptions to the law and measure its effectiveness.

In Maryland, the only other jurisdictions with similar affordable housing mandates are Montgomery and Frederick counties.

Despite the enthusiasm for the bill, the meat of which comes directly from a city task force's recommendations, city departments - including planning, housing, law and finance - have concerns about many of its key elements.

Late last week, the agencies drafted a substitute ordinance that, among other things, eliminated the funding for the trust fund and the housing board. It also would let developers who do not get subsidies or rezonings off the hook for affordable units.

Housing advocates, who quickly heard about the alternative bill, hit the panic button, sending a flurry of e-mails and calls to City Hall. They accused officials of back-door dealing and shutting the public out of the process.

But Gary Cole, the Planning Department's acting director, said City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young's bill is simply not workable.

"What we saw was a bill that really did not speak to the issues of affordable housing, and we had some suggestions that would improve it. It's as simple as that," Cole said. "I think what we want is we want a bill that's really going to help the citizens of Baltimore. Not something that's not doable."

Young said yesterday that some of the city agency's changes made sense - he's no longer sure the city needs a special inclusionary housing board, or if it's legally possible to dedicate the transfer tax for a certain purpose.

And he's worried that the bill is now doomed.

A less aggressive version of the bill introduced by Young last year died in a City Council committee after passing the Planning Commission.

"I don't want this bill going down in defeat. I want a mixed community where everyone can work and live," he said. "I don't know why we couldn't all sit down and write a bill that would stand the test."

Now that the bill has been introduced, it will be sent to various city agencies for feedback and go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing and a vote. Eventually, it must pass the council's Land Use and Transportation Committee and the full City Council.

At yesterday afternoon's rally in front of City Hall, where people displayed posters and wore stickers with the message "Introduce a strong bill now," religious and civic leaders reiterated the importance of increasing Baltimore's supply of quality affordable housing.

Bishop John Rabb of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland said, "It's what the Lord demands of us."

"There are too many people working in this city who cannot afford to live in this city, and that injustice cannot continue," he said. "This bill is justice."

The crowd insisted that not just any bill would do. Only a "strong" one.

And by that, said the Rev. Karen Brau, pastor of Amazing Grace in East Baltimore, they mean a bill that includes both a trust fund and a board and targets all residential development.

Anything else, concluded Lawrence, would hardly be worth passing:

"The people who've stood with us," he said, "will get a lot of votes."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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