Earlier this month, the Baltimore County Council approved the expenditure of $798,000 for a contract negotiated with Guidehouse Inc. by the administration of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.

Guidehouse will provide “strategic management consulting services” intended to accelerate the county’s lagging efforts to address the acute shortage of affordable housing.

Council members were troubled by the price tag, asking why the 83 employees of the county Department of Housing and Community Development needed help. My fear is that the contract is another pricey exercise in kicking the affordable housing can down the road.

Olszewski entered office in December 2018 obliged to comply with the provisions of a 2016 settlement agreement between the county and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development referred to as a voluntary compliance agreement. HUD and other plaintiffs sued the county in 2011, alleging that county policies resulted in the clustering of low-income and minority (primarily Black) residents in poor and segregated neighborhoods.

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The compliance agreement required Olszewski to introduce legislation to prohibit landlords from discriminating against prospective tenants who use federal Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers to help pay the rent. He did so, and the Baltimore County Council passed the Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act on a 4-3 vote in November 2019.

The agreement also requires the county to construct 1,000 new affordable and accessible housing units by 2027. Progress toward what seems like a modest goal has been slow; The Baltimore Banner reported that only 458 units had been built as of January.

Olszewski appointed an Affordable Housing Work Group in April 2021, purportedly to speed up the construction of affordable housing. The 31-member body issued its report in July 2022. The comprehensive report included numerous recommendations for addressing a housing crisis that the work group acknowledged won’t be resolved simply by meeting the minimum requirements of the compliance agreement.

The report gathered dust in the run-up to the December 2022 elections for county executive and County Council. In January 2023, Olszewski finally announced several bills in response to the work group’s recommendations. The bills, however, were little more than window dressing.

One, Bill 7-23, was touted as expanding the use of “accessory dwelling units” on land zoned for single-family dwellings. Unfortunately, the bill modifies the condition that such a unit must be occupied by a member of the owner’s family only by eliminating the requirement that it be a member of the owner’s immediate family. Authorities on housing issues agree that restricting occupancy of the units to family members “severely limit[s] the potential for ADUs to address a shortage of rental housing.”

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A second bill, Bill 6-23, allows a reduction in the minimum width of a townhome from 20 feet to 16 feet if the townhome is part of a development in which at least 10% of the townhomes in the development are set aside for households with an income no more than 120% of the area median income. It is another half-measure, with no impact where the need is greatest.

Finally, Bill 4-23 was described as creating a “dedicated long-term funding mechanism” for the county’s Housing Opportunities Fund. Here’s what the bill didn’t do: create a dedicated source of revenue for the fund as was recently done in Anne Arundel County.

Many of the work group’s recommendations would make a difference, including adoption of “inclusionary zoning” practices and amendments to the county’s zoning regulations. That would expand locations where multifamily developments may be built. None of those recommendations have been pursued.

In 2021, the county was required to conduct an “analysis of the barriers” that prevented it from meeting the annual benchmark for adding affordable housing units under the compliance agreement. The work group took the opportunity to lambast the council’s much-maligned practice of legislative spot zoning as one of those barriers:

“In the midst of the County drafting its Analysis of Barriers in May 2021, the Baltimore County Council was busy zoning by legislative action, via Bill 46-21, which targeted a parcel on the southeast corner of Belair Road and Honeygo Boulevard in Perry Hall, and enacted into law a development agreement negotiated by the developer and representatives of nearby communities,” the work group wrote. “The agreement prohibited affordable family housing by purposefully allowing single-family attached dwelling units in the otherwise Business-Local zoning district, but then limiting occupancy as age-restricted (over 55).

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The action illustrates continued processes by which County Council members interfere in the zoning process in disregard of their obligations under the Voluntary Compliance Agreement, fair housing and civil rights laws.

Bill 46-21 is one of hundreds of such bills that have generated a lot of age-restricted housing but, as far as I can tell, not one unit of affordable housing.

The work group acknowledged that housing conditions and disparities in the county “are primarily due to historic, discriminatory patterns and practices” which have “denied housing opportunity, limited the opportunity to build wealth and prevented social and economic mobility.” It chided the county for not putting the same effort into improving conditions and eliminating disparities as Howard and Montgomery counties and proposed that it adopt the following policy:

“Baltimore County will create and preserve stable and affordable housing in all neighborhoods to promote economic mobility, provide access to quality education, health care, transit connections and that are guided by intentional strategies to dismantle a legacy of social and racial inequities.”

Achieving the lofty goals described in that policy requires more than reports and promises. It requires concrete action of the type described in a Baltimore Banner report.

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Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman introduced an ambitious bill that would require new housing developments with 20 or more dwelling units to include moderately priced dwelling units. Fifteen percent of units in rental developments would be set aside for people earning no more than 75% of the area median income. Ten percent of units in for-sale developments would be set aside for sale to people earning no more than 100% of the area median income.

The bill provides that developers of certain projects with at least 10 but fewer than 20 dwelling units could pay a fee to the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund in lieu of setting aside the moderately prices units. Projects with fewer than 10 units are exempt from the bill.

That same week, Pittman announced that the housing trust fund will help finance a garden-style apartment project in Hanover called Eagle Park that will provide 120 rental units to people earning no more than 60% of the AMI. A substantial number of the units will be targeted to households earning lower incomes, including 50% or 30% of the area median income.

Appointing work groups, hiring consultants and proposing legislative half-measures are classic political ploys intended to give the appearance of working on a problem without doing anything that might offend some voters and campaign donors. It’s time for Baltimore County to emulate other counties and actually try to ameliorate the affordable housing crisis.

David Plymyer retired as Anne Arundel County attorney in 2014 and now writes about the law and local and state government. He lives in Catonsville.

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