No one with a sense of history should be surprised by Baltimore County Council’s unanimous rejection of a $13.7 million housing development for low-income families in Rosedale on the county’s eastside.
The county has a long record for strongly opposing housing assistance for families with low or moderate incomes. Indeed, any politician who ignores the hyper-sensitivity of county voters to keeping the jurisdiction safe for “folks like us” risks defeat.
Even the County Council’s lone African American, Ken Oliver, ran for cover last week. He abstained. Oliver voiced heated objections at the council’s private work session but not at the public meeting.
This shameful exclusionary trend — woefully out of step with demographics — isn’t new.
A History Lesson
Nearly 50 years ago, Baltimore County politicians railed against open housing.
When Baltimore Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin invited Baltimore County Executive Spiro T. Agnew in 1964 to work out a metropolitan-wide approach to open occupancy laws — hardly a revolutionary request — Agnew rejected the offer for fear of negative voter response.
Open housing laws, Agnew said, “invade the rights of property guaranteed by our federal constitution.”
Fear of change, and especially fear that poor blacks would destabilize neighborhoods, struck an ugly chord with county residents, especially on the conservative, lower-middle class eastside.
As a “progressive” county executive, Agnew did propose a $27 million urban renewal bond issue for deteriorating parts of Towson and Catonsville.
Foes, though, saw it as a plot to bring public housing, and poor city blacks, to the county. On election day, voters rejected the bond issue by a 3-2 margin.
A month later, the County Council rebuffed Agnew’s request to launch a study of blight in the county. In early 1965, he proposed a local slum clearance program. Within weeks, the County Council killed it.
The atmosphere among opponents was super-charged. They called Agnew’s plans a “malicious, socialistic cancer.”
County resistance to integrated housing accounted for perennial candidate George P. Mahoney’s surprise victory in the 1966 Democratic race for governor. Mahoney ran on the openly racist slogan, “Your home is your castle — protect it.”
Conservative Mahoney beat liberal Congressman Carlton Sickles by a mere 1,939 votes. He won the election in Baltimore County, where he ran up a huge 19,495-vote lead over Sickles (42 percent to 21 percent).
That paved the way for the more “liberal” Agnew’s election as governor.
The Anderson Years
His successor in Towson, Dale Anderson, had a well deserved reputation for opposing integration and affordable housing. He and his cohorts fed voter fears.
Here’s an example: At a 1970 meeting in Rosedale, with a smiling Anderson in attendance, Councilman Wallace Williams said, “Dale Anderson and the rest of the team will continue to fight hard to stop any major government-subsidized programs with strings attached from coming to Baltimore County.”
Then Williams added in his southern drawl, “And you know what I mean. You know what I mean.” Indeed the cheering crowd did.
In November 1970, Baltimore County voters rejected by better than 2-1 a state referendum setting up a Community Development Administration. Anything that hinted at public housing met staunch resistance.
Venetoulis’ Reform Efforts
Reform county executive Ted Venetoulis tried in 1975 to improve the housing situation with $40 million in federal funds. But the County Council and the county’s delegation in Annapolis vetoed that effort.
Next, Venetoulis put forth an urban renewal grant proposal. It met the same fate.
Baltimore County didn’t even have a housing agency until 1987. Three years later, a $2.5 million county bond issue for housing programs lost again on election day, the only bond question (out of 10) to go down to defeat in 1990.
Want more? In 1994, hysteria erupted on the eastside over fears thousands of public housing residents would flood Dundalk, Essex and Middle River under an experimental federal housing program called Moving to Opportunity.
Foes claimed 18,000 poor blacks were coming when, in fact, no more than 40 per year would have been scattered throughout the county under the voucher program. Fierce voter opposition convinced politicians such as County Executive Roger Hayden and Congresswoman Helen D. Bentley to run for the hills.
That included liberal Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who killed the federal MTO funds earmarked for Baltimore. It was not her finest moment.
Housing Exclusion Persists
The new century didn’t change attitudes in Baltimore County.
In 2000, 70 percent of county voters voiced strong outrage over County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger’s carefully worked-out renewal plans for Dundalk, Essex, Middle River and Randallstown. Clearly, housing issues remain Baltimore County’s bugaboo.
So it is not surprising Councilwoman Cathy Bevins hid behind “councilmanic courtesy” to bury the latest affordable housing plan from a nonprofit group. Nor is it shocking the other council members, including Oliver, let her get away with it.
No one had the courage to say, “This is wrong. We’ve got to address our county’s lack of housing for low and lower-middle income people.”
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz tried to play diplomat, noting his “regret” at “the tenor” of the council’s action. It “sent the wrong message,” he said.
His efforts to bring sensible and needed affordable housing to the county won’t be easy.
A New Baltimore County
Back in Ted Agnew’s days as county executive, African Americans made up roughly 3 percent of the subdivision’s population.
Today, blacks constitute 27 percent of county residents and many of them need better housing options. The times, they are a-changin’,
At some point Baltimore Countians, however grudgingly, will have to recognize this reality.