Mayor Brandon Scott kept his cards close to the vest for months ahead of a much-anticipated vote on an ambitious new housing proposal, keeping quiet on whether he’d sign the bill package into law.

While affordable-housing advocates paraded and picketed City Hall to drum up support, top officials in the Scott administration were raising red flags about the proposal’s scope. Baltimore could face a $1.8 billion budget shortfall over the next decade, and officials in the Department of Finance repeatedly warned that the city budget could hardly sustain another tax credit or risk stunting new development.

But with the affordable-housing package on the verge of approval last month, Scott broke his silence. To the surprise of some of the legislation’s backers, including Council President Nick Mosby, the mayor appeared at a rally outside City Hall supporting the bill ahead of a key vote.

Hours earlier, though, the mayor’s team — including top finance and housing officials — scrambled to contain the legislation’s blow to the city budget, records obtained by The Baltimore Banner reveal. Administration officials believed they had reached an agreement with the bill’s sponsor, City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, and were shocked when she reneged at the last moment, a move one senior finance official called “bullshit.”

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“This seems like the worst of both worlds,” Deputy Finance Director Robert Cenname wrote to other top administration officials less than five hours before the mayor spoke at the rally, upon learning that Ramos had abandoned their compromise and Mosby planned to write even deeper subsidies into the bill. The city’s housing commissioner and the deputy mayor overseeing economic development echoed the sentiment, voicing concern about the package’s contents and hasty amendments.

Mayor Brandon Scott speaks outside Baltimore City Hall during a rally for affordablehousing bills in November. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

The late adjustments by Ramos and Mosby, which ultimately passed the City Council on narrow margins, cemented a bold mandate into law that could create hundreds of new units for low-income families over the next few years, including in neighborhoods historically out of their reach.

But emails exchanged between City Council members, housing advocates, influential developers and top Scott administration officials — encompassing hundreds of pages and covering the weeks leading up to the Nov. 20 vote — reveal how negotiations soured in the final hours before the decision. They also show how Scott, who’s entering the height of campaign season in a heated primary contest, came to support Baltimore’s sweeping new inclusionary-housing law despite 11th-hour changes and warnings from his agencies about the financial consequences.

‘This is bullshit’

Housing advocates have long held that inclusionary housing, a practice that requires developers and property owners to set aside a percentage of units at a reduced rate, could help reverse generations of segregation in Baltimore. A previous version of Baltimore’s inclusionary-housing law, enacted in 2007 with liberal allowances for waivers, did little to integrate neighborhoods and produced barely three dozen low-rent units over 15 years.

Fixing that broken law became a top priority for advocates as the policy neared its expiration date in mid-2022.

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To finally push the legislation forward last year, Ramos would have to make what she viewed as a major concession: She paired her inclusionary mandate with a tax credit for developers.

Terrel Askew, 35, Hieu Truong, 38, and Loraine Arikat, 26, all from Baltimore hold up signs in support of affordable housing. A rally in support of the BMOREEquitable Council Bill 22-0195, which demands equitable and affordable housing options for all, took place outside of 401 Light Street on October 3, 2022.
Terrel Askew, 35; Hieu Truong, 38; and Loraine Arikat, 26, all from Baltimore, hold up signs in support of affordable-housing legislation in October. (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

Some officials expressed wariness about the idea from the start. With the city facing a forecasted $100 million deficit for the coming year, “even doing another million seems kind of crazy to the budget people,” Cenname told council members at a November hearing.

The cost of the credit would be just $600,00 the first year, but the Department of Finance predicted that it would balloon as more affordable units got built. By the credit’s 15th year, Cenname projected in a May report to City Council, the credit would climb to almost $15 million — or more than $100 million over the whole period.

For months, Ramos and Cenname went back and forth over the weeds of the complex housing proposal. Especially divisive was the question of whether to put a ceiling on the policy’s budget impact — either by writing an end-date into the law or capping the number of city-subsidized units.

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Scott played down those disagreements ahead of the City Council’s November decision, expressing his hope that “folks who agree on the issue” could work out “small details” in time for the vote. The mayor told reporters at a Nov. 15 news conference that his administration supported “the vision” of inclusionary housing in Baltimore, even as they blasted the details of the policies behind the scenes.

Just days out from the second of three scheduled City Council votes on Monday, Nov. 20, the two sides came together for a series of decisive negotiation sessions, the emails show. Invited to those calls were members of the mayor’s team, including housing and finance officials, Ramos and several other City Council members, advocates and representatives of the developer community — including from high-profile projects such as Harborplace and Baltimore Peninsula.

The meetings ended with a compromise over the weekend: The law would cap the number of subsidized units.

Their deal, though, wouldn’t last long.

Just after 9 a.m. the following morning, the day of the big, council-wide vote, Ramos wrote to colleagues to brief them on the weekend’s decisions. She added, however, that when it came to the agreed-upon cap, her mind had changed.

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“I realize this is new for everyone,” the councilwoman said. There had been “many hours” of discussion on this point, and she’d decided that a cap undercut the central goal, she explained.

“The whole point of doing this is to intentionally create mixed income communities where they don’t exist now,” and “to undo the racist housing policies of the past,” she said.

Her reversal sparked outrage in the mayor’s camp.

“Guess she is looking for a showdown,” Doug Schmidt, principal at Workshop Development who represented developer interests at the negotiation table, wrote to the administration team. “She wants to turn a win into loss for everyone!!!”

“This is bullshit — she reneged on the deal and negotiated in bad faith,” wrote Cenname. “Is the Mayor willing to veto this?”

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Justin Williams, deputy mayor for community and economic development, argued that Ramos’ aim of fostering mixed-income communities across Baltimore didn’t align with her desire to pass an affordable-housing policy with unlimited costs.

We “aren’t ‘undoing racist housing policies of the past’ if we have no money to do things like, complete the build out of the Park Heights Master Plan,” he said.

Adding salt to the wound for the Scott administration team, they soon got a message informing them that Nick Mosby, the council president, was planning to pursue an amendment that would require some units be set aside for lower-income residents, a prospect Cenname worried would quickly deplete the city’s specialized trust fund for affordable housing.

Together, Mosby’s and Ramos’s maneuvers amounted to “the worst of both worlds,” the deputy finance director wrote to the administration team.

Alice Kennedy, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development and Baltimore’s top housing official, agreed.

With just hours before the City Council’s scheduled vote, Scott’s team formulated a last-ditch plan to curb the financial hit of the policy: City Councilman James Torrence, an ally of the mayor, would introduce an amendment at that night’s meeting to insert a cap back into the legislation. Cenname wondered in an email whether others should make calls to whip votes, but the city administrator reassured him: “I think we have a path forward” with Torrence’s amendment, Faith Leach told the team.

Scott, meanwhile, was preparing to speak at the rally assembling outside City Hall.

Even as Mosby waved a baseball cap in the air before a crowd of housing advocates, leading chants of “no cap,” the mayor took the podium and pledged his support to the bill.

Less than an hour later, his team’s attempt to rein in the policy fell flat. After Torrence offered a brief pitch on the council floor for including a 400-unit cap, his amendment failed. Minutes later, the council approved the uncapped version. Mosby’s amendment calling for a portion of the units to be reserved for households earning no more than 50% of the area median income also passed.

City Council President Nick Mosby speaks outside Baltimore City Hall during a rally for the inclusionary-housing bills in November. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

An imperfect plan

Academics who study land use and zoning policy largely see inclusionary-housing mandates as effective, if complicated, tools to implement.

In a 2015 report on the topic, housing policy researcher Rick Jacobus wrote that cities with high levels of economic segregation may find inclusionary-housing policies to be “one of the most promising strategies to ensure that the benefits of development are shared widely.” Laws mandating construction of inclusionary units offer numerous benefits, he said, fostering affordable housing without overburdening developers, hampering growth or hiking taxes on residents.

Ramos acknowledged in a January interview that the City Council’s new plan has its flaws. She and the council president disagreed, for instance, on his amendment to lower the area median income requirement. Reflecting on her execution, she said she could have communicated better with colleagues, while she said her reversal on the agreement to cap the number of affordable units left city finance officials in a difficult position.

“At the end of the day, we got something done that will produce units, and that’s the bottom line,” she said.

Councilwoman Odette Ramos attends a rally in support of her housing bill in October. (Kaitlin Newman for The Baltimore Banner)

Reached for comment, Cenname declined an interview but pointed to his agency’s May report projecting that the legislation will create tens of millions of dollars in long-term costs to the city.

The mayor’s office, meanwhile, said Scott is working with staff in the finance and housing agencies to mitigate the burden of the bill and does not expect it to significantly impact the upcoming budget. The mayor “has been an ardent supporter of inclusionary housing from the beginning,” his office said, noting that he sees the policy as an important step for correcting historic wrongs, like generations of financial neglect of Black communities.

“We have the responsibility to balance the moral imperative of providing safe, affordable housing in all parts of our city with very real fiscal considerations,” Scott said in a statement.

Scott was joined this week by housing officials, council members and advocates for a ceremony in City Hall, where he signed the housing package into law. This time, as the crowd chanted, “No cap!” the mayor joined in.

For Torrence, both demands for a sweeping inclusionary housing policy and the Scott administration’s concerns about how much it will cost are understandable. The councilman believes the new law will be an important tool for expanding affordable housing. Though the process was rocky, he said, “everyone was acting on good faith.”

“Everyone was on the same page in terms of just getting this done,” he said. “Now we have to do the other portion about making sure that we can stay afloat.”