Baltimore County's poor need housing, too

Rosedale opposition to development ignores trends in suburban poverty

November 19, 2013|Dan Rodricks

The opposition to a $13.7 million housing development for low-income families in eastern Baltimore County, and to the county's acceptance of state funds to help pay for it, wouldn't sound so predictably obtuse, shortsighted and mean if we were in the year 1973 instead of 2013.

In 1973, the argument against the development of low-income homes, like the successful argument against building public housing, reflected the racism, classism and escapism of the times.

Baltimore County was growing; it was filling up with white middle-class families, many of whom had abandoned city life. There was no political will to provide for the poor. In fact, the politics of the times reflected just the opposite view: If you don't build it, they won't come. It was all in service of building a suburban society free of urban problems. Making the county in any way hospitable to the poor (read: black people) would simply have encouraged more of them to move there.

That's mid- to late-20th-century history, a classic story of white flight and suburban insularity. I'm not saying it was acceptable. I'm saying that's how things worked back then, and for years to come.

Into the 1990s, it was still clear that the poor were not welcome in the county.

"My concern about this program is much like Castro did when he opened the prisons and the mental institutions and sent us the AIDS patients. If I were mayor of Baltimore City, believe me, I think I would be derelict in my duty if I did not send out the worst of the worst."

Those were the words of Lou DePazzo, then a state delegate from Dundalk, speaking in 1994 against Moving to Opportunity, an effort to use federal rent subsidies to help selected city residents find private housing in areas with better schools and jobs.

With the city's old and awful public housing high-rises scheduled for demolition, the idea was to disperse some of the poor from Baltimore's de-facto ghettos, where they had been isolated for decades. Participants could move anywhere they wished, within the city or five suburban counties. But DePazzo and other opponents in eastern Baltimore County's white, blue-collar communities feared hordes of black city residents flooding their neighborhoods. DePazzo also warned that poor city residents would have to be "taught to bathe and how not to steal."

The outcry in Baltimore County helped to halt plans for expanding the program. Even that stalwart of liberalism, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, fought against the expansion, uttering something about "concerns" about crime.

Crime and poverty, poverty and crime.

That's fundamental to opponents' rhetoric, the words flowing together until poverty is so associated with criminality that poverty becomes criminal in many a mind.

Lou DePazzo died a few years ago, but his spirit lives on.

"Burglaries, shootings, stabbings, drugs, vandalism, and other crimes go hand-in-hand with Section 8 occupants. It does not matter if Section 8 occupancy is 5% or 100%, we will be inundated with crime."

That's a statement from the Hazelwood-Park East Civic Association in opposing a Rosedale housing development proposed by Homes for America, an Annapolis-based nonprofit that would make housing units available to residents who earn less than 60 percent of the county's median income, which was $65,411 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

Cathy Bevins, the Baltimore County Council member who represents the area, has pushed to block state funding for the 50-unit Homes at McCormick development. She says there are too many poor people in Rosedale already, suggesting that the project would attract families from outside the area rather serve those there now. (On a 6-0 vote Monday, the council passed her resolution opposing the development.)

This is the standard argument used against low-income housing with some Section 8 in almost every area, though studies — in recent years, one by the Urban Institute and the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University — show no link between housing vouchers and increases in crime.

By now, you'd think politicians like Bevins might have noticed that we have nearly 50 million poor in the United States, many of them children, many of them employed and many of them — more than ever — living in the dreamy American suburbs.

In fact, there are more people classified as poor by the government, under the federal definition, in the suburbs of Baltimore than in the city. This change occurred during the last decade, according to those who've studied the census. Research by the Brookings Institution found that suburban poverty in the Baltimore area grew 58 percent between 2000 and 2011. The counties around the city had about 159,000 of the region's poor in 2011, compared with about 150,000 poor residents in the city, Brookings reported earlier this year.

About 10 percent of people in the Rosedale census tract were considered poor in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

So providing housing for low-income families in Baltimore County has less to do these days with making room for "outsiders" than it does with serving those who are already there and looking for a decent place to live.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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