Maryland’s ‘local control’ over housing worsens shortage crisis

Maryland’s housing crisis is getting worse. Freddie Mac and the National Association of Realtors have reported there is a housing shortage of around 120,000 units in Maryland. This number isn’t projecting future growth or new people moving to Maryland, but rather the under supply of housing for those who already call Maryland home. This deficit causes more people to live in smaller spaces and to pay more than they can afford for a place to lay their head. It heightens the risk of eviction and homelessness. Low housing supply results in rents that far outpace regional income growth. And it ultimately makes Maryland a less desirable place to move or build a business as workers require higher compensation to pay for high housing costs.

Maryland’s affordable housing crisis is even worse. The National Low Income Housing Coalition issues an annual report on “The Gap” between demand and supply for affordable units. Maryland has 30 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low income rental households. This ranks Maryland as having the 10th worst affordable housing gap in the country.

While many state lawmakers have acknowledged the high cost of housing as a crisis, few are willing to identify local government as the primary suspect. A century ago, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act was issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce to provide model legislation for states to grant municipalities the power to dictate local land use. Since that time, housing has been presumed to be a “local matter” not subject to state control.

This made sense as counties facilitated, and even welcomed, growth. But over time, these same counties have become less interested in growth and more focused on resource hoarding. Counties not only want to create well-funded school systems with a high quality of life, but also want to ensure as few people as possible have access to these public goods.

In Baltimore County, a new affordable housing proposal in Towson was finally cleared for construction after being held up, and denied administrative approval, because of a resolution adopted by the County Council with the express intent of killing the project. The 56 new affordable units are desperately needed to satisfy the county’s obligation to create 1,200 new units over the next 11 years — an obligation it is not likely to meet.

In Howard County, a member of the Zoning Board, who also serves as a member of the County Council, presided over and voted against a zoning petition for new apartments in the Columbia village of Hickory Ridge after testifying against the petition when it was before the Howard County Planning Board. This kind of explicit bias would be decried in any courtroom, but is status quo for local land use decisions.

Adequate Public Facilities Ordinances, which are intended to signal the need for additional infrastructure to accompany housing growth, have been utilized by counties to create housing moratoriums, stalling the construction of housing in areas with already inflated housing prices. Earlier this year, a circuit court judge ruled that a police shortage in Annapolis would require a hold on all new housing in the city.

Jurisdictions like Montgomery County are projected to need over 60,000 new housing units over the next 20 years. Despite relatively liberal land use and zoning policies compared to its neighbors, Montgomery County is producing less than 2,600 new housing units per year, leaving a projected gap of 8,000 units. When large jurisdictions like Montgomery County don’t build enough housing, the consequences cascade across surrounding counties that need to make up the gap.

The necessities of the housing crisis have caused states like California and Massachusetts to revisit the sanctity of local control for the purposes of shaping statewide housing policy. Maryland may be ready to do the same. House Bill 852/Senate Bill 903 would require counties to provide expedited permit review for religious institutions building affordable housing. Lawmakers also are considering creating a task force to study a law that would require counties to allow the construction of accessory dwelling units. The Montgomery County Delegation sponsored legislation that would prohibit the Montgomery County district council from adopting or enforcing a local law that would require off-street parking for a residential development that is located within a quarter mile of a present or planned Metro or Purple Line station.

The failure to build new housing is a generational wealth transfer by inertia. As housing supply becomes more constrained, Baby Boomers, Gen X members, and older millennials become more wealthy on paper, while later generations find homeownership further out of reach. Every day of inaction makes the problem more intractable. The politics of local government make movement on the housing crisis impossible. It’s time for state lawmakers to step in.


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