A place to live

June 13, 2007

The bill passed Monday by Baltimore's City Council that will require developers to include a percentage of affordable housing units in new developments is a welcome strategy to provide more opportunities for low-income residents to remain in the city. Similar policies have been successfully implemented in Montgomery and other counties.

This major step forward should work in Baltimore - so long as it dovetails with the city's efforts to convert vacant houses into viable places to live.

Like many surrounding areas, Baltimore's housing prices have climbed significantly in recent years. But what constitutes welcome rising property values for some means unaffordable housing for others, and soaring prices have pushed out many low-income residents. City officials, housing advocates, developers and others have tried for about two years to come up with a workable response.

This bill represents a reasonable compromise. By the beginning of 2009, it will require developers who receive tax breaks or discounted land from the city to set aside 20 percent of their units for low- to moderate-income residents. After another 18 months, development projects that benefit from city rezonings would be required to make 10 percent of units affordable. And if overall housing hits high-end prices, 10 percent of all development projects would have to be made affordable.

Providing more affordable housing is critical as Baltimore remains one of the 10 most impoverished areas of the country, while also experiencing tremendous increases in expensive residences, especially in downtown areas around the waterfront. New mixed-income projects contemplated by the bill would be spread throughout the city, a necessary element to help prevent further concentrations of poverty and affluence that make for a divided city.

The legislation should provide additional affordable housing without discouraging developers from undertaking mixed-income projects. But as with many things, the proof will be in the details.

It's unclear whether $2 million designated for the first year of a trust fund that will allow the city to compensate developers for expenses they incur as a result of the required set-asides will be sufficient - or whether it can be expanded and sustained.

The city will also have to ensure coordination of this new program with its ambitious efforts to reclaim and revitalize thousands of vacant houses. It would not make sense to undermine well-intentioned mixed-income development projects with too-slow efforts to deal with vacant and boarded-up houses in the same vicinity.

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