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Olszewski lays out plans for more affordable homes in Baltimore County

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John Lee
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Baltimore County Housing and Community Development Director Terry Hickey speaks at affordable housing news conference Jan. 12, 2023

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said Thursday he will introduce legislation in the county council that would make affordable housing more attainable in the county.

“We recognize that Baltimore County still has a lot of work to do to rise above the tragic and unfortunate policies of redlining and housing segregation that has defined much of the past century,” Olszewski said at a news conference in Towson.

The proposals include funding the development of more affordable housing, defining legally what is considered a vacant home, and allowing more leeway in who can live in an accessory apartment at a home. Those apartments are sometimes called 'mother-in-law suites'.

Another proposal would allow developers to build more townhouses by making them smaller. They could be 16 feet wide, rather than the current minimum of 20 feet.

“We’ve been consistently asked to reconsider our width of homes from the development community,” Olszewski said. “We think that the legislation we’re putting forward balances that request with the need to have more affordability.”

Olszewski said the deal with developers is that while they would get the smaller townhouses they wanted, in exchange they would have to guarantee they are creating affordable housing.

Ned Howe, the vice president of Development Planning and Acquisitions for Enterprise Community Development, a non-profit that develops affordable homes in the Mid-Atlantic, said they have around 1,500 units in the county.

Howe said Olszewski’s proposals are a big step.

“We have an understanding of the affordable housing needs and the difficulty of meeting those needs within this county,” Howe said. “This work is extremely difficult.”

According to the Olszewski administration, there are hundreds of run down and abandoned homes in the county, but there is no legal designation of what qualifies as vacant. They say they need that in order to be able to spend money on turning those homes around.

“We have a lot of properties that are sitting vacant that are health and safety hazards in neighborhoods the communities care about,” said Terry Hickey, the county’s director of Housing and Community Development. “Those could and should be viable home ownership and rental for families.”

The legislation would establish a permanent Housing Opportunity Fund. The money would be used to finance the development of affordable housing.

In Baltimore County, those accessory apartments or 'mother-in-law suites' can only legally be occupied by immediate family members. That would be loosened up under this legislation to include anyone related by blood, adoption or marriage.

Baltimore County’s historic neglect of providing affordable housing led to litigation and a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create 1,000 affordable homes by 2027.

According to Erica Palmisano, Olszewski’s press secretary, the county has so far overseen construction on 458 units.

“Too many residents and young families are caught in the cycle of endless renting, without any hope for ownership in the future, or moving to a better school area, or moving up,” said Claudia Wilson Randall, executive director of Community Development Network of Maryland.

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat, said housing is a human right.

“All of these steps at the end of the day will prevent many of our families from ending up at the most vulnerable place they’ve ever been in their life, and I don’t wish it on anyone, ending up in one of our shelters,” Jones said.

Democratic Councilman Pat Young said they often have to fight a negative narrative of who they are trying to help.

“My belief is that we are helping veterans that are returning home and want to live here,” Young said. “We’re helping seniors that want options to continue to live here. And single parent households that want to raise their kids here.”

The legislation is expected to be introduced at the County Council’s January 17 meeting.

The county council has in the past had contentious hearings over the issue of affordable housing, particularly in 2019 when it agreed to require landlords to accept housing vouchers.

That vote went down party lines, with the three Republicans on the seven member council opposing it.

Two Republicans on the council, David Marks and Todd Crandell, said in texts that they have received Olszewski’s new affordable housing proposals but declined to comment.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2