Center Maryland Editorial: Baltimore County's Bravehearts

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Housing discrimination in Baltimore County has a long, sordid history, with only rare moments of leadership such as we saw with a recent attempt by County Councilman Julian Jones and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz to modernize the county's revolting housing legacy. 

Over the past 50-plus years, open-housing initiatives in the county have been met with resistance, hostility, and outright racism.

Former Sun journalist Antero Pietila, perhaps the premier chronicler of race and housing in America, condemned the county’s role in greater Baltimore’s historical proclivity towards housing discrimination using the data, anecdotes, and insights of 35 years of neighborhood reporting and analysis in the widely-acclaimed account "Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped A Great American City."  

Towson University Professor Diane Scharper highlighted Pietila's account of Baltimore County's shameful past in a 2010 Baltimore Sun book review of "Not in My Neighborhood," relaying that, "some, like Dale Anderson, former Baltimore County executive, deserve more blame than others.” Scharper further emphasizes Pietila’s assertion that “Anderson tried to push blacks from Towson by building a thoroughfare through the heart of an African-American neighborhood, thereby effectively eliminating it. In Catonsville, Anderson and the Baltimore County Council replaced blacks' homes with snack shacks and gas stations. Throughout the county, they decimated at least 20 old African-American settlements.”

Earlier this month, the Baltimore County Council rejected a bill ending discrimination against renters with federal housing vouchers by a nearly-unanimous 6-to-1 margin. This is merely the latest flare-up in the County’s sorry history of racial bias and housing discrimination. It serves as an indication that bias against poor people and minorities continues unabated in the county’s legislative chamber as well as among a segment of their constituents.

There’s little question that discrimination in any form is wrong—morally, ethically, and legally. Yet landlords in Baltimore County routinely discriminate against poor families anxious to escape from the street violence and lack of decent living opportunities often found in Baltimore City. When rental applicants in Baltimore County indicate possession of a Section 8 federal housing voucher, such potential tenants are turned away, even though these vouchers are in effect a federal guarantee on monthly rent. Apparently the fear that “they” would inhabit county communities and apartment complexes overrides both moral decency and fiscal common sense.

Are there no veterans with housing vouchers? Are none of these vouchers held by seniors who devoted a lifetime to manufacturing careers only to be displaced without pensions by foreign competition in the global economy? People with disabilities hold vouchers. Americans from all walks of life hold vouchers.

Only one council member, Julian Jones, Jr. from the Woodlawn-Woodstock-Owings Mills area, had the backbone to speak out forcefully in favor of this anti-bias bill, which was introduced by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. At least Jones and the County Executive understand that sometimes the political concerns of a community which has traditionally favored discriminatory practices must take a back seat to doing what is fair and just.

Julian Jones understands that this is about fairness. Without this new policy, housing for those with vouchers will remain concentrated, and the further concentration of poverty indicates a fundamental failure of equitable governance. Julian Jones is a man who recognizes that poverty is a shared burden, and espouses the ideal that every citizen and family deserves a chance to thrive, regardless of their source of housing income. 

Jones insisted that the discriminatory policies of the past not only left his district with the highest concentration of vouchers, but that Essex and Dundalk have also become voucher hubs. As landlords across the county's upscale neighborhoods discriminated against voucher recipients, a handful of politically-connected multi-family operators on the county’s east side quickly absorbed multitudes of voucher tenants into their flagging communities. This enraged longtime residents of struggling communities who had hoped that the infrastructural burden of supporting less fortunate residents would be shared more evenly amongst countywide rental property owners, rather than clustered in their neighborhood. Not exactly the formula for building trust. 

The bill submitted by Kamenetz was part of a negotiated agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring more diversity to all parts of Baltimore County. Religious groups and advocates for the poor strongly supported the measure. But fairness, reason, and common sense gave way to unfounded fears that regulations on countywide leasing practices would lead to communities overrun by poor, government-supported families. What could have caused this fearful response and subsequent 6-1 council rejection, other than the fact that most voucher-holders are people of color?

Open-housing laws similar to the Kamenetz bill already are working well in Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties. The sky has not fallen in those jurisdictions, as voucher families have quickly acclimated to their new surroundings. What these families want is decent, affordable housing in a county with good public schools, access to a wide variety of job sites, relatively high standards of public safety, and a first-rate quality of life. It’s what every family seeks, regardless of socio-economic status.

The defeated bill was part of an effort to end the concentration of poor families in a small number of communities on Baltimore County’s east and west sides. That makes sense. Many better-off communities have avoided efforts to make them more of a melting pot. Spreading around the voucher applicants throughout the county minimizes any potential negative impact.

Fortunately, the council’s rejection of the rental-housing anti-bias bill isn’t the end of this story. Kamenetz will be introducing a similar bill in the future. By then, council members should have a far better understanding of the benefits of this open-housing measure and will have time to work with the county executive on modified language to ease community fears and objections.

Exclusionary public policy is a hot topic in this year’s presidential election. In that campaign, the debate has gotten raw, mean-spirited, and ugly. Members of the Baltimore County Council must take whatever steps are necessary to make sure they do not fall into that same trap—votes by Catonsville's Tom Quirk on the matter seem closer to George "Your Home is Your Castle" Mahoney than the modern, inclusionary, "stronger together" virtues his district's federal workers and Baltimore/DC commuters expect out of their representation. 

Access to multiple housing options is every American’s dream. That this is being compromised by landlords in Baltimore County is unacceptable in the 21st century. Political leaders in the county cannot and should not allow that situation to persist and fester.

To paraphrase William Wallace, the legendary Scottish knight and “Braveheart” for the poor, "your title gives you the claim to lead our county, but people don't follow titles. They follow courage."

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