A package of housing bills intended to ease the mounting cost burden on Howard County residents failed to advance through the County Council Monday night, effectively ending the county executive’s campaign for more affordable options and lower rents in one of Maryland’s most expensive areas.

Nicknamed the HOME Package, the policy bundle included local legislation meant to curb rent gouging in the county and expanded a Right to Purchase law that would have given nonprofit organizations and private companies the power to purchase and preserve existing rental units as affordable units. The rent cap would have prevented annual rent increases of more than 5% plus inflation or 10%, whichever is less.

But the council failed to take up the matters after they were introduced in October, and without an extension, they will expire officially Jan 15.

In a statement, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said he accepted the defeat.

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“These efforts went through the legislative process, and I respect the decision of the County Council to not further advance these thoughtful bills at this time,” Ball, a second-term Democrat, said. He added that other elements of the HOME package, including the allocation of funds for rental assistance programs and infrastructure investments, would move forward.

Howard County Councilman Opel Jones, a Democrat who declined to support the HOME package proposals, said the county’s housing problems are real and widespread.

But rent control, he said, likely would have exacerbated the problems.

“I want more housing: for seniors, affordable housing, more in general,” said Jones, who represents Columbia and Jessup. “I’m a housing advocate and I’m all for it. But we need to drive down prices, for the family looking for that first home and the seniors looking to downsize.”

Jones pointed to research that found jurisdictions with caps on rent were more likely to see budget strains and fewer new units produced.

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“It would have hurt housing more than it would have helped,” he said, adding that he sensed no political will around the right of purchase law, either. “Howard needs more housing, but how we go about it needs to be done in a constructive way.”

In an early morning statement Tuesday, members of the Howard County Rent Stabilization Coalition said they would work to lobby County Council members to introduce and pass rent stabilization as an emergency bill before the expiration date. The group blasted the decision to allow the bills to expire, saying the council missed an opportunity to provide a more stable future for thousands of residents who would benefit from lower rent prices.

Councilwoman Liz Walsh, who represents Ellicott City, Dorsey’s Search, Elkridge and Hanover, called the outcome a “giant disappointment” and a blow to county residents.

She said she had little confidence in an emergency bill or special meeting changing the outcome.

“We heard from so many residents about their real, consequential suffering,” Walsh said in an email. “And whether as proposed or potentially amended, at least these bills offered some modicum of relief. Now there is nothing.”

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County leaders are racing to combat dueling housing affordability and supply challenges in their communities, which Maryland’s top housing official Jacob R. Day has referred to as a “crisis.” State lawmakers are expected to consider a number of proposals during the 2024 General Assembly session, which starts later this month. But the Howard County Council’s failure to advance all of the HOME Package may foreshadow the difficulties passing similar legislation at the state level.

Ball, who served on Howard County’s council for more than a decade, also chairs the board of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and served as the 2023 president of the Maryland Association of Counties. During a panel discussion in November at the Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition’s annual meeting, he said he has used his platform to broach the affordable housing topic with his colleagues.

“It’s nice to talk about affordable housing,” he said during the panel. “It’s much nicer to actually build affordable housing and even the nicest to preserve it afterwards.”

He touted other wins he’s had during his tenure as county executive, including creating an affordable housing “trust fund” in the county; allocating more money for affordable housing; and helping to pass the county’s first housing opportunities master plan in over a decade.

At the same November event, Day told the crowd that a statewide rent cap likely would exacerbate affordability concerns in the state. He said rent control measures might not support the rise of such expenses as real estate taxes and insurance costs — two market realities that could dissuade developers from taking on meaningful projects and make affordable housing event more scant in Maryland. In October, he joined Ball at a news conference where the Howard County Executive publicly introduced the housing package.

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Ball pledged Monday night to continue taking a “comprehensive and visionary approach” to Howard County housing, which has some of the highest home costs in the state. In November, the median home price stood at $570,000, the highest among Baltimore metro area counties and up more than 14% from a year ago, according to data from Bright MLS, the regional listing service. Homes there spend a median length of seven days on the market, according to the data, among the lowest in the metro area.

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Elsewhere in Maryland, local leaders are having mixed success with getting housing policies passed. In Anne Arundel, County Executive Steuart Pittman’s “Essential Worker Housing Access Act” would have required developers of some buildings to offer a percentage of units at a reduced price. It failed on a narrow 4-3 vote last month, with Pittman vowing to curb the influence of developers in local elections.

A similar ordinance in Baltimore City passed last month after being stalled in the City Council for more than a year. Mayor Brandon Scott, who expressed support for the measure in November after senior members of his staff urged City Council members to pump the brakes, said he would sign the inclusionary housing bill package into law.

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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