County AWOL on affordable housing

December 20, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

Most American politicians, including most so-called liberals, are cowards on the subject of housing for the poor. They may grandstand on the backs of the huddled homeless when winter comes, but ask them to do something practical, smart and lasting to make housing more accessible and affordable to our poorest citizens and they either run for cover or use the topic, as the radio-talkers do, to incite a crowd with fear and anger.

In Baltimore County, the leadership acts as if there are no poor - or as if there's no urgency to help them find a place to live.

The county has never built public housing. In recent years, it has allowed the stock of affordable housing to decline by about 4,000 units, according to an estimate of the Legal Aid Bureau. The county has never seriously considered the inclusive zoning concept put to work successfully elsewhere in Maryland suburbs. And now, requests by low-income families for Section 8 rental vouchers have reached historic levels.

As The Sun's Josh Mitchell reported, the waiting list for federal rent subsidies to low-income county families has grown to what is believed to be an all-time high of 12,775.

This is the result of stagnant wages, rising rents and home prices, but it's also due to the loss, through redevelopment, of older housing where low-income people traditionally lived. Poor families, and even middle-income families, have fewer choices in Baltimore County.

Meanwhile, prosperous Howard County has laws requiring that moderate-income units be built in some projects, and now they're talking about setting aside a percentage of new units in Columbia's town-center redevelopment for the same purpose. (Forty years ago, in the early days of Columbia, the Rouse Co. built hundreds of subsidized units there voluntarily.) There are affordable-housing requirements in Frederick County and in Baltimore.

Montgomery County has had inclusionary zoning since 1973, requiring that 15 percent of all new units in large developments (50 units or more) be set aside for renters or homebuyers from the lower third of the income scale.

Had the Baltimore region followed the Montgomery formula during the 1980s and 1990s, the astute urban visionary David Rusk estimated, about 39,000 affordable-housing units would have been built here. In addition, Rusk wrote in a 2005 Sun op-ed, "a regional housing authority (or a network of county housing authorities) would have acquired 13,000 units, about equal to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City's entire inventory."

But, of course, that didn't happen.

Thousands of housing units have been built, everywhere from Owings Mills to White Marsh, without any legal requirement that a few - even 10 percent - be for lower-income people.

Had there been such a requirement, it would have meant the end of Baltimore's concentrated poverty and a stronger city.

And it would have given Baltimore County's low-income a shot at better housing, better schools, better jobs - and the county would not have 12,000-plus families looking for Section 8 vouchers this holiday season.

As Rusk has said, these are problems we don't have to have.

But there is virtually no political leadership here.

With the exception of Elijah Cummings, the Baltimore congressman, few pols are willing to stick their necks out. None that I hear call for a regional approach to this problem. The Baltimore County executive has called efforts to move the poor "failed public policy," and he has vowed to "fight any program that negatively impacts families in Baltimore County." That's great talk-radio rhetoric, but hardly the stuff of a courageous progressive.

So, in this leadership vacuum, we have a federal judge presiding over a tedious, 11-year-old housing discrimination case and trying to broker remedies that will permanently smash the city's federally funded ghettos and keep the region from creating new pockets of poverty.

It has been 23 months since U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis found that federal officials had violated fair-housing laws by continuing to concentrate the region's poor within the city limits. The remedy, Garbis said, should be a regional approach, involving the suburbs. We're still waiting on his final opinion and a proposed remedy.

Meanwhile, the work of relocating Baltimore's poor goes on - slowly, beneath the radar, despite the cowardly pols and out of the range of demagogues.

More than 1,000 city public-housing families have moved to new locations around the city. Another 1,100 families have used vouchers to make rents affordable - in both the city and the suburbs. Imagine that. About two-thirds of the families who were displaced by the demolition of the city's high-rises more than a decade ago have found new places to live, even in the 'burbs. Obviously more needs to be done. But progress is being made - no thanks (and no credit) to our fearless leaders.

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