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The housing affordability debate and a tale of 2 Md. counties

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball answers questions about his plan to prevent flood deaths and damage in Ellicott City on Thursday. He hopes to avoid tearing down properties in the historic community. (The Daily Record / Adam Bednar)

“Howard County has a long history of conversations about housing affordability,” says Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. (The Daily Record / Adam Bednar)

Baltimore metro suburbs continue grappling with how to provide access to affordable housing, but depending on a jurisdiction’s history and what’s proposed, some counties are finding that easier than others.

Once considered bastions for the middle class against Baltimore’s struggles with integration, crime and poverty, suburban counties now face their own struggles furnishing housing that meets the needs of residents of all income levels.

But the problem of providing access to housing, particularly for low-income residents, has grown in stature as the cost of housing increases. Community opposition to proposed solutions portends political consequences for elected officials and potential legal ramifications if inequalities are ignored.

Currently, the most contentious fight is in Baltimore County, which is locked in a battle over the Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, Act. The Baltimore County Council is considering the legislation, which essentially bars landlords from rejecting tenants who pay rent with federal housing vouchers.

A variety of groups and organizations, from community associations to the ACLU of Maryland, have joined the fray and are pressuring their local officials over the proposal.

One community group, the Carney Improvement Association, has urged residents to contact Councilmen Wade Kach and David Marks and urge them to vote against the bill. The association’s president, Meg O’Hare, sent the email after residents voted 49-19 to oppose the legislation.

“We are already experiencing problems with one of the small number of undesirable (Housing Choice Voucher Program) renters who have enabled drug sales with disposition of drug paraphernalia on residential streets in the Harford Hills community near Harford Hills Elementary School. Elderly residents in this neighborhood are house-bound because they are afraid to even walk their dogs,” O’Hare, who did not return a call seeking comment, wrote in the email.

The impetus for passing the HOME Act stems from an agreement struck by the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration in early 2016. The deal settled complaints from residents and activists filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development accusing the county of encouraging discrimination.

Later that year Kamenetz unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill similar to the HOME Act. The legislation was so unpopular only one member of the six-member council voted in favor of it.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olzewski Jr. introduced the HOME Act in October, calling it a legal and moral obligation to pass the bill. But the legislation again is generating significant controversy, and its approval remains in doubt. So far only Councilman Izzy Patoka and Councilman Julian Jones, the lone vote in favor of the 2016 bill, have voiced support for the legislation.

Sean Narron, a spokesman for Olzewski, wrote in an email that the county executive remains “cautiously optimistic” the bill will pass. If the legislation fails, according to Narron, it will be back again.

“Failure to pass the HOME Act means that many residents will continue to face housing discrimination in Baltimore County. It will also require the county to introduce the bill every year until passage,” Narron wrote on Wednesday afternoon.

By contrast, Howard County, which enacted inclusionary zoning requirements more than 20 years ago, is starting the process of updating its Housing Opportunities Master Plan.

Howard County Executive Ball said in a telephone interview Wednesday that assuring residents access to affordable housing is embedded in the county’s DNA. Ball attributed that policy to Jim Rouse, founder of the Rouse Co., which developed Columbia as a mixed-income community between Washington and Baltimore.

Earlier in the day Ball signed an executive order to form a Housing Opportunities Master Plan task force. In the next 30 days, Ball said, the county plans to choose from request for proposal responses to select an independent consultant to explore how the county can maintain a “sustainable future of housing.”

While Howard County has dealt with its own tumult involving issues of class and race, such as the ongoing school redistricting proposal, the county views itself as a leader in terms of equitable access to affordable housing.

“Howard County has a long history of conversations about housing affordability,” Ball said, adding that he believes the process now underway could serve as a model for other communities.


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