Shortly before Monday night’s County Council meeting, an Anne Arundel County professional firefighter made a pitch for a bill that would be heard later that evening.
Only about a quarter of the county’s firefighters and paramedics live in Anne Arundel, Brian Holtslander told a crowd of several dozen people gathered at a rally in support of the bill, called the Essential Worker Housing Access Act of 2023. A scattered workforce not only makes emergencies more difficult to respond to, Holtslander said, but also erodes the fabric of the first responder community, which historically has been close-knit.
Holtslander said he and his colleagues have been priced out of the suburban county they serve. “Our neighborhoods are good for our firefighters,” he said. “And we know that our neighbors and our firefighters can be good for our neighborhoods.”
He was one of several “essential workers” who spoke on Monday night in favor of the housing access bill, which inspired testimony from county public library staffers, local and state government employees, students and former educators. At its crux, the bill would require new development projects that exceed a certain size to reserve a portion of their units for people earning below the Baltimore-area median income. It would also allow developers creating smaller-scale projects to pay a fee in lieu of the moderately priced unit requirement.
In exchange, the county would waive certain one-time fees and cut water and sewer connection bills in half. It also would provide for a modest “density bonus,” allowing for slightly more units per acre than what the zoning code typically allows.
The bill, spearheaded by County Executive Steuart Pittman, would add to a suite of housing proposals already successfully shepherded through by the Democrat’s administration. They include a fair housing bill that restricts housing discrimination based on income source; the creation of an affordable housing trust fund; and a permanent funding stream for that fund.
Earlier in the day, Pittman received a leadership award from the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition at its annual meeting. In a pre-recorded acceptance speech, he said Anne Arundel County had long garnered a reputation for “failing to deliver” for its low-income earners and families.
“We have a lot more work to do to make it easier to build housing and build particularly affordable housing in our county,” he said. But measures like the essential worker bill, he added, would help chip away at some of the damage done.
The bill comes as county governments race to propose solutions to the state’s housing affordability challenges, as workers find their salaries are not keeping pace with rising rents and home costs. Across Maryland, county and municipal governments are seeking zoning code changes, rent control and more resources to encourage developers to build in their jurisdictions. Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Jacob R. Day called the state’s housing supply shortage a “crisis” earlier Monday.
The bill did not receive a final vote at Monday’s hearing; it will be heard again on Nov. 20. Council chair Peter Smith urged supporters to be patient and mindful of the “sausage-making” process as the seven-member council works to find middle ground with those who want the county to pump the brakes on the measure. They include representatives of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, the Anne Arundel County Association of REALTORS and several county residents who raised concerns about the bill as written.
“We urge a pause,” said Isaac Ambruso, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Maryland Building Industry Association, who argued that the bill would exacerbate an existing decline in building activity in the county. He said the county lacks the right zoning to meet current market demands, a problem this bill does not address.
Mark Mazer, an Arnold resident who testified in favor of the bill, noted that the ordinance does not address situations in which income-eligible workers’ economic circumstances improve. He also contended that income-eligibility tests may not capture workers’ total net worth, allowing some to qualify for housing they don’t need.
He also said losses in developers’ fees and water and sewer bill revenue could leave the county financially strapped. “How are we going to actually pay for it?” he asked.
The bill inspired emotional testimony from several county residents who said they have taken on multiple jobs, moved in with friends and family or settled for sub-par housing due to soaring rent and home prices.
Bonnie Henderson, a former state and county employee, said she has sought to purchase a home in the county since 2002, but to no avail.
“For Black families, it’s even more important, because so few of us have been able to become homeowners,” she said. “It is a shame we cannot afford to live in the county we contribute to.”
Deborah Gundry, a social worker who has cerebral palsy, said her disability forces her to take on a much lighter caseload than her colleagues. Even without a disability, she said, her native county would be unaffordable.
She earned an eligibility certificate for a moderately priced for-sale unit in 2017 but couldn’t find any in Annapolis until this past July. “We must have this program,” she said, urging the council to waive the fee exemption for smaller-scale projects.
At the People’s Park rally prior to the Monday night bill hearing, Maryland state Del. Shaneka Henson, who represents Annapolis, urged the council to support the bill, saying it would connect the “threads” of housing, public safety, education and health care.
“It wasn’t until the pandemic that we called them essential workers,” Henson said. “What this bill does is recognize that their housing is essential.”
A similar version of the bill went before the County Council in 2004 and had the votes to pass but failed when one member left the chambers early on the night of the vote, said state Sen. Pamela G. Beidle, a former council member who attended the rally. Had the measure passed then, she said, the county would have produced roughly 4,000 more moderately priced units by now.
Back then, the county executive didn’t support the measure, Beidle said. But two decades later, what’s old is new again.
“We need to do something about housing in this county. We have shortages all over our workforce,” she said. “I really hope this County Council can get it done this time.”