In a somewhat unusual move, Maryland’s top housing official voiced concerns before the Baltimore County Council passed a bill earlier this month designed to prevent and mitigate overcrowding in public schools.

Advanced with a 4-2 vote, the policy requires housing developers to obtain approval from an established “public school capacity committee” before they can build in overcrowded school districts. It also gradually lowers the maximum capacity threshold of a school — from 115% to 105% — and grants virtually no exemptions.

If denied a permit from the committee, a developer would be placed on a waiting list for up to four years before receiving the green light.

Addressed May 21 to Baltimore County Council Chair Izzy Patoka, Housing Secretary Jake Day’s letter urged the legislative body to balance its fervor on the school capacity front with solutions tied to the state’s housing shortfall, which has driven up costs around the state and forced many to live in undesirable conditions.

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“The Department recommends that policies that limit or otherwise reduce the building of housing be considered very carefully,” Day warned in the “informational” letter, which is submitted neither in support of nor in opposition to a bill.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has slightly more than a week remaining to veto the bill, but he has given no indication of his next move. The second-term executive won the Democratic nomination last month to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District and faces a Republican opponent in November.

Day’s letter signals high levels of anxiety among state government officials about Maryland’s dual housing affordability and supply challenges. State estimates peg the deficit to at least 96,000 units, with about a third of them needed in the Baltimore metropolitan region alone, according to Day’s correspondence.

At the same time, Baltimore County has just a few years left to meet an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build 1,000 units of affordable housing, an effort to right decades of discriminatory housing practices. The amount of land the county can use to develop is restricted by an “urban rural demarcation line” that creates an invisible barrier protecting natural resources and agricultural land — further limiting where those 1,000 units can go.

Baltimore County government representatives said in February that they had met about half of the 1,000-unit goal. Though affordable housing creation is now often contingent upon density, the concept has roiled residents in parts of Baltimore County who have blasted developers for attempting to add apartments and mixed-use developments to their communities.

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Marylanders, meanwhile, widely agree that lawmakers should do more to address high rent and housing costs. A poll released this past March found that an overwhelming majority of state residents agreed that elected officials had not done enough to address the housing deficit. About a third of the respondents said they have considered moving or leaving the state due to housing costs, and a plurality of poll participants said they would vote against state lawmakers who voted against policies that would lower housing costs.

The poll helped Gov. Wes Moore’s administration pass an ambitious trio of bills in this year’s legislative session designed to boost housing supply and create more guardrails around renters. But a provision that would have given counties a 15-year window to disregard adequate public facilities ordinances — the umbrella term for how counties manage growth — did not make it to the final version of the legislative package.

In an April interview, Day said the adequate public facilities ordinance stipulation received a high level of pushback that state officials struggled to ameliorate. Those opposed, he said, accused the administration of “picking a fight” over a measure that had no demonstrable impact on housing, an allegation Day said was false but difficult to counter.

While development projects have historically been stalled or scaled back due to adequate public facilities ordinances, Day said even more have not been kickstarted as a result of the growth limitations.

“It’s hard to prove a negative,” Day said.

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While he could not commit to revisiting the measure next year, Day said housing policy analysts would spend the next several months reviewing what more they could do to provide relief to homebuyers and renters.

At least one Baltimore County councilman, Wade Kach — whose district includes the controversial Lutherville Station land that developer Mark Renbaum hopes to turn into retail and apartments — said the bill would help ease the pressure that housing development has on schools.

In testimony, he also said he supported the school overcrowding measure in response to the package of bills that passed this year in Annapolis, which, he said would “pack our schools.”

Kach supported the exemption-free school overcrowding bill even after attempting earlier this year to grant development powers at a specific site in Hunt Valley/Timonium that required a zoning change, which drew concerns from the county’s attorney and a veto from Olszewski.

Other supporters of the bill have countered that it will not kill county development altogether — just slow it in certain districts.

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“These recommendations do not stop development,” Patoka’s chief of staff Justin Silberman wrote on X on Friday, in response to a post about Day’s letter. He acknowledged that the county needed more housing and the county had a responsibility to “encourage” it.

While some have argued during public hearings about crowded schools’ negative impact on teaching and learning, Day noted in his letter that equally troubling implications need be considered in a county with inadequate housing. Kids enduring subpar living conditions, housing instability or homelessness were more likely to be in academic jeopardy, he said. And educators have begun citing costs of living, including home and rent prices, as a key factor driving the decision to change careers.

Baltimore County’s school overcrowding bill received some support from teachers unions and parent-teacher organizations. But the school board came out more divided, with at least one member testifying in support of the bill and another coming out against it.

“We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Nick Stewart, a county-based attorney and member of the We The People community group, which has come out strongly against the bill. “We need to meaningfully create housing and invest in infrastructure.”

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Stewart, in an interview earlier this spring, noted that the county has often cut deals with developers and waived lucrative development fees that could have helped pay for more school construction. And the task force charged with making recommendations to design this bill came at it “in good faith,” he added.

Still, Stewart said, the consequences of the bill are too grave to ignore.

“Of course we want adequate public facilities,” he said. “But oftentimes, it’s used to just prevent development, density and change and housing.”

Others have noted that the county has chosen to restrict housing construction instead of other politically dicey measures such as increased taxpayer spending.

County Councilman Julian Jones, who voted against the bill last week, said while he initially supported the bill’s intent, he had trouble squaring it with the county’s recent population loss, which would only worsen without more housing.

If the county loses residents, it will be forced to raise taxes, Jones added — another unpopular course of action.

“No one wants overcrowded schools, no one wants to close schools: You have to have the right mixture,” Jones said. “And we have to do what’s right for Baltimore County.”