By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – The public housing project at Hollander Ridge was demolished last year, but the 8-foot wrought-iron fence that separated the Baltimore City project from its Baltimore County neighbors still stands.
Housing advocates tell that story to illustrate their claims that the fears and tensions that spawned the fence continue to fuel Baltimore County’s housing policies, which have compounded the isolation and poverty of its low- income residents.
The county has zero public housing units, compared to 1,026 units in neighboring Anne Arundel County and 50 in Howard County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development spokesman Ed McDonough said Baltimore County is the largest county that has not used Partnership Rental Housing, a state program that provides funds for construction, rehabilitation or acquisition of housing for low-income families.
And advocates say that while county plans encourage single-family homes in targeted “high-growth areas” around White Marsh and Owings Mills, the county makes no effort to encourage development of low-income housing anywhere in the county.
“They have put on blinders that prevent them from seeing the need for providing housing. . .in an effort to preserve (the county) as a home for the middle-class,” said Ruth Crystal, the former director of the controversial housing voucher program Moving to Opportunity.
She said the county argues that providing low-income housing “is not our problem.”
County officials call the need for low-income housing a “difficult and controversial issue” and say that they want to see “even greater integration of the low-income population.” HUD reports that 11,735 county residents fall into the category of “worst-case housing needs,” very-low-income people who pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing.
But county spokeswoman Elise Armacost said in a written response to a reporter’s questions that the county has a “longstanding belief that affordable housing is best handled through the private sector, with subsidies and support from government agencies.”
She said the county has 23,000 HUD-assisted housing units throughout the county, making affordable housing readily available.
Many low-income housing advocates acknowledge that there are plenty of vacant affordable units, but that they are primarily in areas such as Essex, Middle River and Dundalk.
But Crystal says the housing that is affordable is in disrepair and is also concentrated in the poorest communities in the county, both of which are recognized in the county’s Master Plan 2010.
The plan reports that most low- and moderate-income residents who require affordable housing are concentrated in only 16 percent of all county census tracts. It also notes that the buildings, facilities and infrastructure in the areas along the city line are 50 years old and reaching the end of their “life expectancy.”
The county disputes the contention that low-income residents are confined to the older neighborhoods. Armacost said one-third of the county’s subsidized units are in or adjacent to high-growth areas and that residents with federal Section 8 vouchers, which pay part of their rents, are scattered throughout the county. The county has 5,950 Section 8 voucher recipients, according to HUD.
Armacost also noted that the county is working to reduce concentrations of low-income housing in certain areas through the elimination of substandard apartment complexes.
While the county is razing many of the units that are past their prime, however, little is being done to replace them, said Barbara Samuels, a housing attorney for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She maintains that the county’s lack of public housing has forced the city to be a warehouse for the county’s poor.
“Their strategy is to reduce the overall (housing stock) in these areas and thereby reduce the units to which low-income minorities from the city will migrate,” Samuels said.
“If they were demolishing and replacing (with low-income units) in high- growth areas, that would be a good thing,” she said. “But that’s now what it is doing. It has no plan whatsoever to replace the lost affordable housing.”
Replacing that housing requires two ingredients that Baltimore County does not appear to have — incentive programs and community support for low-income housing projects.
“If you’re going to do lower income. . .you need the programs to make it work,” said developer Jim Ginsburg, the president of Waterford Group Inc., which specializes in affordable housing for senior citizens.
Ginsburg said that higher-income counties like Montgomery are more attractive to because developers are allowed to set higher rents and still qualify for tax breaks. In lower-income jurisdictions like Baltimore County, he said, “you need some other vehicles to make it work in addition to tax credits” from the state and federal governments.
Ginsburg also noted that in order for a project to compete for state affordable-housing dollars, support from the key elected officials is critical.
“If you don’t have community support behind you. . .in our eyes, it’s not worth doing it (because) it’s an expensive process,” he said.
While Ginsburg has had good luck finding both of these elements for building senior housing in Baltimore County, he is not certain that he would find the same kind of support with a family housing project.
Advocates say that support does not exist. Several zoning regulations serve to discourage affordable-housing developers, particularly in the designated high-growth areas of White Marsh and Owings Mills: The county council banned “back-to-back” townhouses and raised quality standards so that affordable housing is no longer economically feasible, for example.
Samuels said the high-growth areas, which have been prioritized as job centers by the county’s Department of Economic Development, present a great opportunity to create affordable housing without concentrating poverty.
“They are really missing the boat on areas where it makes perfect sense to build mixed-income housing,” she says.