Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Maryland joins Virginia with a new proposal to tackle the affordable housing crisis. And it’s sweeping in its ambition.
For the past few years, cities and states on the West Coast have led the charge to build more dense housing and arrest fast-rising rents. Oregon passed the first-ever statewide law legalizing duplex homes in most cities, while California has debated one bill after another to increase the allowable housing near transit.
The East Coast has been slower to pick up on density as a solution to soaring costs for renters and home-buyers. But that may change in the new year. Late in December, Virginia became the first eastern state to see a proposal to prohibit bans on duplex housing across the state, among other housing fixes. Not to be outdone, Maryland will weigh a upzoning bill in 2020, plus a sweeping experiment to build European-style social housing across the state.
Next week, Maryland House Delegate Vaughn Stewart will introduce a suite of housing bills to expand rights for renters and options for buyers. This legislative “Homes for All” package would attack the affordability crisis on three fronts: by lifting zoning restrictions on new housing, generating a fund for public housing, and establishing new rights for tenants.
“What we’re really trying to convey is that the housing affordability crisis is so deep and so acute, that you can’t begin to solve it with just one solution,” Stewart says. “It’s time for the Maryland General Assembly’s response on housing to meet the scale of the problem.”
Stewart, who represents Montgomery County, a largely affluent suburban area outside Washington, D.C., was elected to office in 2019 in part on a pledge to address the high cost of housing and lack of so-called middle housing options. The subject is divisive locally: While Montgomery County council members voted unanimously to build 10,000 more housing units by 2030, the county’s executive, Marc Elrich, opposed the resolution.
With the Homes for All bills, Stewart says he is focusing on justice and equity as an explicit goal of zoning reform.
“For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart says. “We’ve got to act boldly if we want to reverse decades of exclusionary policy.”
Maryland’s upzoning bill takes a different tack from the law recently introduced by Virginia House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, which would legalize duplexes across the commonwealth. Instead of a blanket upzoning, Stewart has opted for a more tailored approach. His bill would increase the legally permissible density of housing only in areas with relatively high incomes, concentration of jobs, or access to public transit. It would also raise taxes to fund thousands of units of publicly owned and permanently affordable housing.
While both the Virginia and Maryland bills are the work of suburban D.C. representatives—officials separated by only about 30 miles—the two bills show how widely housing strategies may vary. Now lawmakers will weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.
The D.C. area, including Montgomery County, faces an acute shortage of affordable and market-rate homes. A report from the Urban Institute finds that the region needs to build 374,000 housing units by 2030 in order to meet its pent-up housing need. Yet other parts of Maryland struggle with different housing crises, from sky-high vacancy rates and negative home values in Baltimore to exclusionary restrictions that freeze out new buyers on the Eastern Shore. Maryland is a microcosm for America.
“We’ve got Appalachia, the South, the water, a major Northeast city, affluence, poverty, immigrants,” Stewart says. “It’s tough to have a one-size-fits-all bill, especially with something as tough as housing policy.”
Bringing together a broad, durable pro-housing coalition is critical to pass any housing reforms, he adds. He designed his bill to appeal to tenants’ rights activist, market-oriented supply-siders, and socialist public housing champions (or PHIMBYs) alike.
The Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 would legalize a wide array of multifamily homes, including duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters, and townhouses. The bill would preempt local restrictive zoning codes in census tracts that meet certain criteria for jobs, transit access, and median household income. Stewart’s bill uses the Opportunity Atlas, a demographic mapping project by economists at Harvard University and Brown University with the U.S. Census Bureau, as a guide for setting parameters for neighborhood opportunity.
For census tracts in Maryland that meet the opportunity standards, local governments must permit at least one of each kind of middle-housing option in single family home–zoned areas, and they must legalize duplexes by right. The bill doesn’t prohibit the construction of single-family homes; instead, it repeals local bans on duplexes and other multifamily home options.
The bill, whose precise legal language is still being drafted, would also require local governments to ensure that new development does not lead to any net loss of naturally occurring affordable housing. The bill leaves it to local governments to regulate other land-use codes, including property sizes and setbacks. In wouldn’t affect rural areas or low-income places with less opportunity.
A second bill, the Social Housing Act of 2020, would broadly fund and encourage the construction of new social housing statewide. This ambitious proposal could have enormous ramifications for the Old Line State. The fundamentals of his new bill are simple: publicly owned, permanently affordable, accessible homes, built with unionized labor, near public transit, and made available to a variety of income levels.
This kind of social housing, based on the Vienna model, is rare in the U.S.—there are maybe 600,000 to 750,000 units, fewer even than the federally capped figure for public housing. As far as proposals for social housing go, possibly only the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez comes close.
“It sounds almost utopian to an American’s ear,” Stewart says. “But it’s very mundane in Europe.”
The Social Housing Act ams to create thousands of these units in Maryland. To fund these homes, the bill would tweak the state’s real-estate transfer taxes to include a new 0.75 percent tax for properties that sell for $1 million or more. The bill would also authorize a new $75 fee for real-estate notices, including trusts, covenants, and other documents (but not sales). It’s unclear yet how many public-housing units this new purse would actually subsidize, and some details about the funding and financing of the units may change as the bill’s likely impact is audited.
Building affordable housing is a challenge in Maryland. Historically, the state has spent a “cartoonishly low amount out of its Housing Trust Fund,” according to Stewart. From 1992 through fiscal year 2018, Maryland’s fund has received $49 million; in D.C., a similar housing production trust fund received nearly $170 million in fiscal year 2018 alone, even though the District's population is 10 times smaller than that of Maryland.
The final plank of the Homes for All package, the Tenant Protection Act of 2020, is a grab-bag of new rights for tenants. Some of the provisions would implement protections available to tenants in California and New York, while others would expand renters’ rights in Montgomery County to cover the entire state.
For example, the law would allow Maryland tenants to leave a lease early if the landlord can’t or won’t fix defects, pests, or mold. It expands the rights of victims of sexual assault or domestic violence to terminate a lease early to include victims of stalking and other vulnerable renters—and it makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants for calling the police after suffering these crimes. Maryland landlords currently have 45 days to return a security deposit; if this law passes, they’ll have 30 days instead. Plus, landlords will have to submit itemized receipts for any deductions.
“[The bill] takes some of our existing laws and brings them to the next level, giving the tenant the ability to be their own best advocate,” says Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.
Housing reforms face long odds, thanks in part to the diverse groups that tend to step up to face them down. The opposition brings together NIMBY homeowners who don’t want to share the wealth, socialist-types who don’t support market-rate developers, and racists who want to preserve exclusive white communities.
While zoning reformers can claim a few victories now, the YIMBY movement is still fractious, a challenge for housing affordability on both coasts. Stewart says that he hopes to overcome the “balkanization on the left on housing” by aiming wide.
“I’ve gotten frustrated by the in-fighting between those who think we should most principally focus on zoning laws and those who want to focus on renters’ rights,” Stewart says. “We can do all those things together.”