Monday night was the culmination of many months of coalition building, listening, negotiating, and cajoling toward passage of Anne Arundel County’s long-awaited inclusionary housing bill, the Essential Worker Housing Access Act (78-23). All three Republicans and one Democrat on the County Council made up a majority to kill the bill. The other three Democrats voted yes. You can watch the proceedings here.
I won’t go into the bill’s merits now, but if you missed it, please read the what and the why here, in Weekly Letter #39 from seven weeks ago. And you can read my statement in response to Monday’s vote here. Today I will reflect on where we stand and where I think we’re headed.
The greatest threat to our future, in my view, is the fact that as one segment of our population becomes wealthier than we ever imagined possible, another is falling deeper into debt. Health care, child care, and transportation are big factors, but housing insecurity is the primary portal to poverty.
I worked full time on the cutting edge of housing policy and advocacy from 1985 -1995, using the Community Reinvestment Act, the federal HOME program, mortgage loan counseling, tenant unions, anti-redlining contracts with banks, community land trusts, and tactics ranging from protest to negotiation. We got some things done, but I became frustrated by the slow progress and turned my attention elsewhere. I ran for office 23 years later because I believed we were entering a moment in history when real progress could be made. I still believe that.
Monday night’s vote was not, to me, a major setback.
I learned as a community organizer that any lasting change, any secure progress that I could achieve as a county executive, would be within the body politic, within the hearts and belief systems of the people who are the foundation of our democracy.
The extraordinary alliance that we built to support this bill will endure, and the members of the organizations in that alliance will forever be aware that their peers, their interest group members, stood up to some very powerful interests in support of housing accessibility for the essential workers who keep our economy going in tough times.
Organizers like to have villains to go up against, and in this campaign the obvious choice would be the developers and their representatives who lobbied so effectively against the bill. But I’m no longer the organizer. I’m in a job where I represent everybody, including developers.
Yes, the opposition came from people who make their living building housing, and they did argue that requiring them to deliver some moderately priced units along with their market-priced units would have a negative effect on the county unless we offered financial incentives above the impact fee waiver and utility connection discount already in the bill. But not all developers agreed. I spoke to many who are fine with the bill, who believe it’s good public policy. In fact, the membership of the Anne Arundel County Affordable Housing Coalition is majority housing producers, and they were a key bill supporter.
I also think that the developer opposition that exists will subside. There will always be some who are stuck in the past, but eventually their trade association will accept that it’s good business and good PR to be delivering a product that our economic future depends on. Anne Arundel County residents are quick to vilify developers, especially when they are sitting in traffic, but polls are showing that concern about housing affordability is growing fast. Developers came to accept stormwater management requirements, and most take pride in their compliance today. The same will be true of moderately priced housing units in the future, because the public is getting on board.
I want to close with an experience earlier this year at a Maryland Association of Counties board retreat in Howard County. They took us to visit a brand-new, high end development in downtown Columbia that had a beautiful pool and community spaces with amazing amenities. The developer met us there and showed us around. He described with great pride how the county-mandated moderately priced units were going to families that never thought they could live in a place like this. He noted that the pricing actually made it possible for people with federal housing vouchers to live there, working people with low incomes.
I walked away truly understanding why they call these county laws that exist in so many thriving jurisdictions “inclusionary zoning.” I also noted how my Republican peers from rural counties praised the development and its affordable units. We will get this done in Anne Arundel County, and we’ll be glad that we did.
Until next week…
Anne Arundel County Executive