A house within reach

December 11, 2006

A flare-up over attempts by some Baltimore agencies to change a proposed inclusionary housing bill shows how tough it may be to reach consensus on a workable, affordable housing law. But that's what both sides in this debate should aim for - consensus. The idea of ensuring a stream of affordable housing for working families is neither outlandish nor unachievable. It's been done elsewhere and it can be negotiated here.

Inclusionary housing generally requires developers to set aside a certain percentage of units for the working poor. A task force of community leaders and civic groups has spent the past year drafting recommendations for such a law. The proposed bill's sponsor, Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young, was approached recently by city planners and housing officials who challenged aspects of the bill. Some task force members saw the move as an attempt to undermine their hard work and accused Mr. Young of selling out.

Their concern was understandable. The bill hadn't yet been introduced when the city agencies sketched out their version. But criticizing Mr. Young for entertaining the agencies' concerns - and threatening him and others with electoral defeat - was a sure way to alienate their chief supporter.

Requiring developers to accept less profit won't be an easy sell, and there are those in the industry who will portray inclusionary housing that way. But legislation as ambitious and complex as this one - it's 32 pages - requires study and debate. It will likely need revision. But how much revision will depend on the strength and quality of the proposal.

Boston, Denver and San Diego, to name a few, have inclusionary housing laws. Montgomery County has had one for years. Mr. Young's focus, as it should be, has been on promoting one Baltimore, not two: "I don't want to see people priced out of the city they work in."

The high-six-figure prices of some new townhouses and condominiums in Baltimore in recent years perpetuate the two-Baltimore theme. An inclusionary housing law should have inducements and incentives for developers to build mixed-income housing; it should provide financial assistance to working families so they can buy into projects such as Albemarle Square alongside Little Italy. It should be strong enough to ensure that affordable housing is built.

Mr. Young's bill may go too far, but that's the place to start, given the citizen interest and input in the process.

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