Baltimore has a housing shortage, counterintuitive as it might sound for a city that’s lost residents for the past seven U.S. Censuses and 5.7% of its population in the past decade alone. For all its vacant houses, many aren’t habitable or need far more extensive renovations than private or public developers can currently provide at scale. Meanwhile, average rents have skyrocketed in many of Baltimore’s most desirable neighborhoods, further squeezing residents.
Experts, legislators, and developers all seem to agree that the city isn’t adding to its housing stock nearly as much as it needs to, affordable or otherwise. That’s where two recent pieces of legislation come in, both from northeast Baltimore City councilmembers.
Ryan Dorsey’s “Abundant Housing Act” would lift many long-standing restrictions on multifamily housing and remove several of its parking minimum requirements, while Odette Ramos’ “Inclusionary Housing for Baltimore City” bill would increase the amount of affordable housing units most new developments would have to include. Both aim to grow Charm City’s housing stock without creating displacement.
Abundant Housing Act would allow more density, nix some parking minimums
The Abundant Housing Act is a zoning reform bill that would lift Baltimore’s restrictions on converting single-family homes into low-density multi-unit housing in many residential areas. A property that spans more than 1,500 square feet would be able to have more than two units. If it is in close proximity to high-quality transit, large grocery stores, or one of the city’s eight Main Street districts, a “bonus density” unit is allowed beyond what that property’s square footage would otherwise permit to incentivize building housing near those amenities.
The bill would also abolish parking minimums specifically related to residential units, a provision Dorsey included because he sees it as a key impediment to building new housing.
“We know that parking minimums are one of the most commonly leveraged barriers to creating new housing when neighbors don’t want more neighbors,” Dorsey said. “I think it’s also fair to say that morally, there’s something wrong with saying that we can’t house human beings who need housing or can’t provide housing in high-opportunity neighborhoods unless we can first promise to house an automobile.”
The Abundant Housing Act has sparked controversy since the zoning updates would not trump existing covenants banning multi-unit homes — many of which date back to segregation — in primarily white communities like Guilford and Roland Park in North Baltimore. Critics worry that leaving these wealthier areas out of the bill’s strongest requirements will increase pressure on neighboring majority-Black neighborhoods that have higher vacancy rates, and could eventually push residents out.
Dorsey argued that the cost required to restore a vacant property and sell it, especially in a high-vacancy neighborhood, wouldn’t be viable unless it was converted into multifamily housing. That’s a process the City Council undertakes all the time, Dorsey noted, just inefficiently because they do it case-by-case.
“We already routinely see ordinances to allow these kinds of conversions for exactly this purpose, for making rehab financially feasible at a small scale,” Dorsey said. “But, it slows down the process, often taking months to a year to go from ‘I am a person who wants to buy this property, rehab it, and put it back into use’ to realizing I need to get an ordinance in order to do this, figuring out how to navigate the process, hiring a lawyer, getting a councilmember to introduce a bill, getting that bill heard, getting that bill voted on, and signed by the Mayor. You literally have to pass a whole law every time you want to do one of these houses. It adds cost, it adds time, it really gums up the works.”
Dorsey introduced the bill in September 2022, but it hasn’t yet been set for a work session, nor either of the two Council votes it would need for full passage to Mayor Brandon Scott’s desk.
Inclusionary Housing bill would close a key loophole
Odette Ramos’ Inclusionary Housing for Baltimore City bill aims to reform the city’s inclusionary housing program, which requires market-rate developers building 30 or more housing units to set aside 20% of them for people earning less than median income. The program has been a massive failure, only creating 37 affordable units between the bill’s passage in 2007 and its expiration earlier this summer. Ramos attributed those paltry numbers to a number of loopholes in the original bill — one in particular.
“Basically the legislation said the city pays a certain percent of the cost to build a unit and if the city doesn’t have that, then the developer can ask for a waiver. Do we ever have that money? No,” said Ramos. “So what my bill does is there are no waivers, there’s no way to get out of this, it absolutely is an obligation. For the fact that you’re already getting a subsidy, all we’re asking for is 10% back.”
Ramos proposed a few other major changes to the program in her bill. The affordable housing mandate would apply to developments with 20 or more units as opposed to 30, though the required amount of those units (defined as affordable to households earning 60% of the city’s area median income) would be reduced from 20% to 10%.
Builders would also have to add at least 5% more affordable units if a subsidy is given for housing for residents who are “very low or extremely low-income.” All of the projects that qualify for a subsidy would have to submit an “Inclusionary Housing Plan” to the city’s Inclusionary Housing Board (IHB) before they can have any permits pulled, the owner of the property and the IHB have to report annually to City Hall to verify the program’s requirements being met, and the property would be eligible for Inclusionary Housing for 30 years, with the timeline automatically starting over every time the property switches ownership or control.
Ramos also proposed an amendment (one of 31 and counting for the ordinance) that states noncompliance would result in a $1,000-per-day fine. She also specified that the affordable units each development offers would have to be the same as their market rate counterparts. “You can’t do wood countertops for the affordable units and granite countertops for the non-affordable units,” Ramos said.
Ramos’ bill had to wait most of 2022 to get a hearing, partially due to a request from the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which wanted to review a study it had commissioned on inclusionary housing before weighing in. It got a hearing in November following pressure from a broad coalition of over 25 local unions and nonprofits.
Ramos was optimistic that the legislation might soon come before the City Council for the two votes it needs to reach the Mayor’s desk once a couple details are worked out, most notably the final funding structure for the program.
Not a silver bullet, but a step forward
Neither Dorsey nor Ramos are under any illusions that their respective bills will solve Baltimore’s housing woes or sufficiently expand transit access on their own, but they hope to move the city in the right direction. Tom Coale, a housing and land use lawyer and vocal supporter of both bills, pointed out that the changes could help the city’s projects qualify for several newtransportation anddensity-relatedgrants from the Biden administration.
Coale noted the potential symbolism of Baltimore, birthplace of redlining and the Highway to Nowhere, to create an example of how to fight the housing problems they set in motion.
“Baltimore City is not known for its forward-thinking housing policies and zoning laws,” Coale said. “How encouraging it is that we could potentially have the best inclusionary zoning policy in the state come out of Baltimore City and we could have the first meaningful step to fully legalize housing move forward in Baltimore City. That demonstrates that policymakers and lawmakers in Baltimore City are ready to take a leadership position when they normally would not be seen in that spot.”