At a long-anticipated hearing Tuesday evening, representatives from Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration urged members of the Baltimore City Council to pump the brakes on a package of bills designed to increase the city’s supply of affordable housing units.
The administration, wary of the two bills’ possible cost to the city and the ways they could detract from other ongoing housing initiatives already underway, asked for more time to study the proposals and find middle ground. Both bills advanced to second reading anyway, though City Council members said they remained unfinished and would need to be refined ahead of another vote.
Councilwoman Odette Ramos, the bills’ sponsor who has been shepherding the legislative package along since early 2022, said the Scott administration rehashed issues Tuesday night that had previously been addressed during negotiating sessions. She introduced the legislation shortly before a previous inclusionary housing policy expired, which has been criticized for its overall low impact, producing less than three dozen reduced-price units over a 17-year period.
“I am appalled,” she told Deputy Mayor Justin Williams during a heated exchange.
The bills — one that issues a mandate for all development projects exceeding a certain size and receiving a “major” subsidy to reserve a percentage of the units for people earning less than the Baltimore-area median income, and another that allows property owners to apply for a tax credit to offset the cost of the more affordable units — have garnered both widespread praise and opposition from those in Baltimore’s housing community.
At their core, inclusionary housing policies aim to increase access to housing that otherwise may not be affordable to people who historically have been excluded from living in certain areas. Supporters of inclusionary housing say policies can reduce segregation, improve neighborhood diversity and add more legitimacy to the city’s tax credit and subsidy system. A heavy reliance on subsidies, supporters say, has produced very little for the city’s low-income earners.
The debate comes as jurisdictions around Maryland race to propose solutions to dueling housing supply and affordability challenges; a similar bill in Anne Arundel County was presented before the County Council a week ago. Those who support the measures say the housing “crisis” threatens to displace Baltimore residents, especially low-income workers and people of color.
During a rally held ahead of the evening hearing, City Council President Nick Mosby said failure to act on the bills would reinforce Baltimore’s “economic apartheid” and augment racist housing policies of the past.
“There’s no perfect process, nor is there any perfect bill,” he said. “But this is the right thing for our city, of standing up for our working class, for ensuring that neighborhoods can become diverse.”
Marvin James, the mayor’s chief of staff, said during the hearing that while Scott supports inclusionary housing in general, the legislation needed more time to cook and be digested among constituents, business owners and advocates.
“Any insinuation that the mayor or the administration is not supportive ... is inappropriate,” James said.
The bills received support ahead of the hearing from the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP; the Maryland Inclusive Housing organization; the Public Justice Center; the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Beyond the Boundaries group; and the 1199SEIU Maryland/DC Division, a labor union that represents health care workers in the region.
“Our health care workers and other low-income workers have been the backbone of this city,” said Loraine Arikat, the labor group’s senior policy analyst, during the afternoon rally. “We want to put an end to the inequitable development practices that continue to line the pockets of developers and leave everyday Baltimoreans in the cold.”
Meanwhile, detractors of the proposals argue that the bills, though well-intentioned, could diminish housing supply growth down the line as developers wrangle to make new costs incurred during the coronavirus pandemic pencil out. The bills also got mixed reviews from members of city government.
Representatives from the city’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights said an analysis of the proposals found them “inconclusive” in impact, opening the door to slow new development and alternative affordable housing opportunities. And Robert Cenname of the city’s Finance Department said city government simply could not support the initiative as it faces a more than $100 million structural budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins in July 2024.
Cenname proposed instituting a “sunset” provision that would pause the bills at a later date and allow city government officials to assess how they were working.
“Right now, we’re in a much more precarious financial position than we have been since I’ve been here,” Cenname said. He added that even a sunset after the creation of 100 more affordable units would be “pretty aggressive” considering the city’s budget holes.
And while many members of the council voiced support for the bill, some said the introduction of new language and amendments shortly before the hearing made the process feel rushed. Many justified their votes in favor by asking Ramos to fix certain provisions — such as the possible budgetary shortfalls — ahead of the next hearing.
“We’re in an era now where it’s time to work out some challenges, time for us to take some risks,” said City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, the council’s vice president. “It’s about equity and equality ... that’s what our jobs are as council people.”