Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is proposing to use $16 million in federal grant money to establish an affordable housing trust fund aimed at boosting the county’s stock of affordable rental apartments and homes — potentially through acquisition of vacant and tax-delinquent properties.

During a Thursday news conference in Towson, Olszewski unveiled a legislative proposal package meant to encourage residential developers and nonprofit housing providers to build affordable and accessible units in Baltimore County, and remove barriers to housing stability for low- and fixed-income earners.

To pay for those goals, the second-term Democrat wants to create the Baltimore County Housing Opportunities Fund, using $16 million in one-time American Rescue Plan dollars as a gap-financing mechanism. Olszewski said the county intends to contribute an unspecified amount to the fund, which could be dissolved by the Baltimore County Council.

If the council signs off, money from the fund could be used to acquire and convey privately owned land, “including vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties,” to developers of affordable housing, income-eligible individuals and nonprofit housing providers, according to the bill.

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“This foundational legislative package is a critical next step in our ongoing efforts to address key gaps in our housing continuum, revitalize underserved areas, and expand the availability of quality, attainable housing for every resident in every community,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski’s administration is considering — but has not yet proposed — whether to establish a land banking authority through which to convey blighted properties and “vacant structures” to private and nonprofit housing developers. Such authorities are typically public or quasi-public corporations that wield broad legal powers to acquire abandoned and tax-delinquent properties for redevelopment.

A 2013 state law gives Maryland jurisdictions the ability to create land banking authorities. Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos is pushing to create a city land banking authority, and has convened a work group to study the idea.

But first, the county executive’s office wants to build an inventory of “vacant structures” and create a process by which to classify them, per one of Olszewski’s proposed bills. The legislation defines “vacant structures” as buildings determined to be uninhabited by the county’s permits director, who may consider factors such as overdue utility bills, property liens, trash accumulation, neighbor complaints and criminal activity.

“If you want to develop housing, you need to have the ability to convey and acquire land quickly,” said Terry Hickey, director of the county Department of Housing and Community Development, in an interview.

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“It’s really letting the private marketplace get involved in this — with the idea of changing many of these into viable housing,” he said.

Olszewski said that the proposed changes — which he said are based on recommendations issued in December 2021 by an affordable housing work group that he convened — are “foundational” steps needed for the county to “rise above” its historical discriminatory housing practices, which led to a federal compliance agreement in 2016 requiring Baltimore County to create hundreds more units of affordable housing over the next five years.

Olszewski said his office doesn’t know how many derelict properties are in the county, but estimated there may be “thousands.”

“While these policies announced today are a critical next step, they will not be our last,” the county executive said Thursday.

One bill would ease the restrictions surrounding which family members may live in accessory apartments and allow the accessory unit owner to collect rent. The other bill would enable property owners to build narrower townhomes in dense residential areas as planned unit developments, but require them to reserve at least 10% of townhomes for families who earn less than 120% of the median income.

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The package has the support of council chair Julian Jones and councilmen Izzy Patoka and Pat Young, Democrats who flanked Olszewski at the news conference.

County behind on housing obligation

Despite progress by his administration, Olszewski said the county “still has a lot of work to do” to make progress on housing in a county long defined by redlining and housing discrimination.

Olszewski is under pressure to create 1,000 more affordable housing units in the county’s wealthier census tracts by 2027, per a federal compliance agreement reached during former County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s administration.

That agreement settled a 2011 lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the local NAACP branch and individuals who alleged Baltimore County’s housing policies perpetuated racial segregation and discriminated against Black families and people with disabilities.

But the county has approved funding for just 584 affordable units since the agreement was signed in 2016, and even fewer — 458 units — have been built, according to county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano.

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Housing advocates say a major impediment has been the county council, which wields a heavy hand over proposed developments and has thwarted numerous affordable housing projects over years, discouraging development companies from applying for subsidized units. There’s also limited space to build new multifamily housing, with two-thirds of the county not served by public water and sewer service.

Rather than building public housing and propping up a housing authority to maintain it, Olszewski’s administration wants to offer incentives to private developers to build mixed-income residences. Hickey, whom Olszewski appointed in 2021 to direct the county’s first housing department, said the county is looking to bolster housing access beyond the requirements of the compliance agreement by pursuing legislation that promotes mixed-income housing, makes homeownership easier, and allows residents on fixed incomes, such as seniors, to remain in their homes or rent from a family member.

“We’ve used the VCA [voluntary compliance agreement] as the de-facto housing strategy — it’s not,” Hickey said, adding that until now, the county hasn’t “built the tools to do the work.”

The legislation will be introduced at the council’s Jan. 17 meeting.

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