A new proposal before the Baltimore City Council could dramatically rewrite the city’s building regulations, banning single-family zoning policies that advocates argue have driven housing scarcity and more than a century of segregation.
Dubbed the Abundant Housing Act, the proposal follows legislation recently introduced or adopted by numerous local governments around the country and would open residentially-zoned districts across Baltimore to multi-unit housing — a tool supporters say would cut housing costs and increase residential density in neighborhoods with quality housing and access to jobs, amenities or transportation.
In limiting multi-family housing in many parts of the city, “we are really shortchanging ourselves as a city the opportunity to have more diverse neighborhoods,” said Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who introduced the legislation. “And shortchanging in particular lower-income people the opportunity to move to high-income neighborhoods,” he added.
Still, many areas that have already moved to curtail or end single-family zoning — such as Minneapolis, Portland and the state of California — have growing populations and red-hot housing markets that contribute to shortages of places to live. Baltimore’s neighborhoods, on the other hand, face divergent challenges: many struggle with depopulation and an oversupply of houses, while others suffer from an acute housing shortage.
Brett Theodos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said Dorsey’s proposal could make a difference in certain high-demand neighborhoods. But many neighborhoods in Baltimore have weak demand for housing, Theodos noted, a problem that the elimination of single-family zoning doesn’t address.
“It’s hard for me to understand how increasing density solves the problem,” he said of Baltimore’s distinctive housing challenges. While the legislation wouldn’t do any harm to housing access in Baltimore, Theodos added, “it also doesn’t mean we’re gonna have a renaissance.”
Baltimore’s current zoning laws, which the city installed through a major overhaul in 2016, prevent the conversion of single-family homes to multi-unit buildings in all but four zoning districts, two of which currently require individual ordinances from the City Council to approve conversions. Dorsey’s housing bill would allow owners in every residential district of the city to divide these properties into up to five units, by right, increasing the number of eligible properties from roughly 15,000 to about 41,000, according to calculations provided by Dorsey’s office. The city’s planning department believes the number of eligible homes could be even higher.
Dorsey’s bill would also allow developers to construct new multi-unit housing in these areas, homeowners to construct add-ons and accessory dwelling units on their properties, and remove off-street parking requirements for some new housing.
It could address other challenges facing these neighborhoods as well: The city’s current restrictions on denser housing drive some landlords to operate multi-unit buildings without a license, Dorsey said, leaving tenants vulnerable to substandard housing conditions.
A legacy of segregation
Like Dorsey, some housing advocates in Baltimore are hopeful the legislation could chip away at entrenched segregation.
The bill “would potentially bring about a much needed rental housing stock in quality neighborhoods that have over time intentionally wanted to exclude certain people from their neighborhoods,” said Adria Crutchfield, executive director of the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that works to expand housing options for low-income families.
Those patterns of exclusion have a long history, Crutchfield noted. In the early 20th century, the City Council passed the nation’s first comprehensive racially restrictive zoning ordinance, prohibiting members of one racial group from buying a house in a city block already occupied by another race. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar ordinance in Kentucky in 1917, leading to a revision of Baltimore’s codes.
The resulting zoning rules regulated housing by type — single family vs. multifamily — rather than by race. But by isolating the majority of multi-unit housing to specific areas of the city, those codes kept the city’s segregated map roughly intact, coupled with other practices such as housing voucher and lending discrimination.
At the same time, single-family restrictions have contributed to a mismatch of housing need and supply, especially for smaller units. That leaves low-income people and people who receive rent vouchers from the federal government competing over limited options. In April, over 720 voucher holders were seeking one-bedroom apartments, according to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City — roughly double the number seeking two-bedroom apartments and nearly four times the number of people seeking three-bedroom units.
Of the people seeking one-bedroom apartments, over 500 had been looking for more than 60 days. The proportion was roughly the same for voucher holders seeking larger apartments.
Limits to zoning reform
Dorsey acknowledged that, even with his bill’s sweeping overhaul, it’s unlikely to dramatically change the city’s housing stock anytime soon. The legislation creates the opportunity for owners and developers to increase density, but it doesn’t require or create any incentives for them to do so. The city currently has burdensome requirements to approve conversion, and a lack of demand in some areas: Among the roughly 15,000 properties eligible for conversion today, only 80 have been converted.
And the proposal could draw blowback in parts of the city that are wedded to their single-family homes.
In Guilford, the leafy neighborhood known for its stately houses, local community association board member and legal counsel Tim Chriss said he’s open to new zoning policies but also noted that neighborhood covenants in North Baltimore, which date back more than a century, could block multi-unit homes from being built there even if Dorsey’s bill is adopted.
For decades, Guilford residents have worked to “preserve and enhance” the “character and ambiance” created by the neighborhood’s single-family restrictions, Chriss said. It’s “been the case in Guilford for more than 100 years, and that has served the community well.”
Chriss added that he wants to see an extensive vetting of the legislation’s knock-on effects, for factors such as property values, quality of life, street parking and city tax revenues.
In other neighborhoods, residents say that creating a pipeline to homeownership is a bigger priority than those outlined in the bill.
In parts of West Baltimore where multi-unit conversion is already permitted, residents find their streets filled with either low-quality, cramped apartments or a vacant blighted property, said Eric Stephenson, a member of the city’s Planning Commission. Stephenson, who is also a resident of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore, was skeptical that this type of policy rewrite would open doors to a third option, homeownership, which he argued is what the community really needs.
Still, others suggested that the spread of multi-family housing could bring a needed economic boost. Limitations on the development of additional housing have created challenges for local businesses in the Northeast neighborhoods of Hamilton and Lauraville, where many residents own their homes, according to Daniel Doty, executive director of Hamilton-Lauraville Main Street.
“Retail is a very challenging business at any time and anywhere, but particularly when there’s just not enough people to come shop,” said Doty, who said that even popular businesses along the commercial district on Harford Road have struggled to keep their doors open.
While the tool may not fit the particularities of Baltimore’s housing crisis, Theodos said it could moderately increase housing supply in some of the city’s high-demand neighborhoods. The reform doesn’t require a financial investment from the city, and has the double benefit of providing some additional housing capacity while also creating a channel for homeowners to make extra money, Theodos noted.
“These are modest increases to the supply of housing stock in a city. Just because they’re modest doesn’t mean they’re not worth doing,” he said.