Residents of an historically African American neighborhood in East Towson are lobbying against plans for an affordable housing development. Those descendants of slaves who once labored at Hampton Plantation in Baltimore County, fear the project threatens the existence of their neighborhood.
Baltimore County finds itself caught between those residents, and an agreement it has with the federal government to provide additional affordable housing.
County officials say it is also their moral obligation to do so.
Sherry Goldring remembers as a child hearing stories from Mister Mack, a former Hampton slave, while sitting on his front stoop in East Towson.
“He told us how he was a water boy, and he would have this pole that would go across his shoulders with two buckets on each side,” Goldring said. “And he would take that water to go feed the horses. But he never ever ever complained about anything that he had to do.”
Goldring told that story on a recent community walk down Lennox Avenue in East Towson. Along the way neighbors swapped stories and gave shout outs to each other.
Sherry Goldring’s niece, Nancy Goldring, who is the president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association, organized the walkabout to draw attention to her neighborhood that she said would be destroyed by Red Maple Place. It’s a proposed 56 unit affordable housing development next to East Towson.
Nancy Goldring described it as a big brick beast that will dominate the neighborhood.
“It will as far as I’m concerned destroy the streetscape for us,” Goldring said. “It will get rid of all of the existing green space that’s here.”
Red Maple would be built on 2.5 acres of woods on Joppa Road. Opponents say the project is too big for the property and will bring with it water runoff and soil erosion.
Goldring believes the future of this historic African American community hangs in the balance.
“I believe that this project is designed to systematically wipe East Towson off of Towson’s map,” Goldring said.
Dana Johnson, the president of Homes for America, a non-profit company that is developing Red Maple, said she believes that characterization of the project is unfair.
“I frankly don’t understand the language of ‘decimating our community, destroying property values,’” Johnson said. “These are often concerns raised when affordable housing projects are proposed.”
She cited studies that show projects like Red Maple that aren’t too big and are maintained and managed properly do not decrease property values in stable neighborhoods. Johnson said the company wants to own Red Maple for decades to come.
“It’s definitely in our interest to ensure that we are maintaining the property, that we are being a good neighbor, that our residents are happy and that our units can continue to be rented,” Johnson said.
The lack of affordable housing is a problem nationwide.
John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that’s because wages have not kept up with the increasing cost of homes and rents.
“If you’re on minimum wage and work 40 hours a week, there’s no county in the entire country where you can afford a two bedroom home for rent,” Rennie Short said.”
Opponents of Red Maple say they support affordable housing, just not this project.
The opposition goes beyond East Towson. Other Towson neighborhood organizations oppose it. East Towson’s County Councilman, David Marks, is against it. Delegate Cathi Forbes, who represents East Towson in the General Assembly, calls it an environmental nightmare.
The undeveloped site currently has flooding problems from storm water runoff. Opponents fear the project will make matters worse.
“We’re going to stabilize the site,” Johnson said. “We’re going to plant more trees. We’re going to install storm water management devices.”
Former State Senator Jim Brochin, who once lived in East Towson, said he’s hiring an attorney to help the neighborhood fight Red Maple.
Brochin called the project environmental injustice. He said it targets an African-American community that doesn’t have the political connections to fight it.
“It’s an attempt to bully and cajole their way into putting low income housing with environmental hazards into this neighborhood,” Brochin said.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski supports Red Maple Place but is open to tinkering with the plan.
Olszewski said, “We welcome the opportunity to discuss, to make adjustments, understanding that those conversations are taking place in the context of a legal requirement with the federal government to ensure that we are expanding affordable housing in Baltimore County.”
Baltimore County is legally obligated to create 1,000 affordable housing units in 12 years. It’s an agreement the county made with The Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2016 to settle a housing discrimination complaint.
Terry Hickey, the county’s deputy director for housing and community development, said they have built 522 units so far. Red Maple would take a sizable bite out the remaining units that need to be built. The county is throwing in a $2.1 million loan to Homes for America to help pay for the project.
Hickey said it goes beyond satisfying the agreement with HUD.
“We’re looking to give people an opportunity to bring their families and live in a place where they can grow and they can thrive along with their neighbors,” Hickey said.
A key part of the agreement is to scatter the affordable housing around. In the past it’s been concentrated on the east and west sides of the county.
While the effects of building Red Maple Place are open for debate, what is no longer debatable is East Towson’s ties to slavery at Hampton.
Nancy Goldring recently walked the grounds of Hampton National Historic Site with a reporter. She had been there once before. She said that visit was to commune with her ancestors before the community walk she organized around East Towson.
Goldring said when she peered into the windows of Hampton’s slave quarters, she experienced a feeling that is difficult to describe.
“It wasn’t a terror,” Goldring said. It was just a slight, some cross between fear and reverence I guess.”
The connection between East Towson and Hampton has always been a part of stories told in the neighborhood. Now it is documented in a three-and-a-half year study done by the National Park Service of what happened to the former slaves and their descendants.
Gregory Weidman, the curator of Hampton, said they have confirmed through records that after emancipation a number of the freed slaves settled in East Towson.
Weidman said, “Because there was beginning to be more economic opportunity and more people that they knew or already connected to, the other enslaved families, formerly enslaved families were settling there.”
Hampton at its height in the 19th century was a massive 25,000 acre estate, stretching from Lutherville to White Marsh.
There were hundreds of former slaves. They settled not only in East Towson, but also in Baltimore, Southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Their descendants now can be found throughout the country.
The East Towson descendants and the county will square off over Red Maple Place at a hearing before an administrative law judge, who will make the final decision over whether the project will proceed. That hearing is scheduled for next month.