A city council member has proposed a major change to city zoning laws that could spur new investment and home renovation in Baltimore, although some neighborhoods will not be affected.
Councilman Ryan Dorsey wants to end single-family zoning and adjust off-street parking requirements, opening up much of the city to multi-unit housing. As long as homes meet certain size requirements, they can be renovated and converted into two, three, or even four families under a bill introduced by Dorsey called the Abundant Housing Act.
Five other council members co-sponsored the bill, which was referred to the Economic and Social Development Committee.
Some people in Baltimore’s real estate industry said this bill would incentivize developers to renovate more vacant homes, create affordable rental units and diversify neighborhoods, but one developer questioned its impact on black neighborhoods. Dorsey said his bill would not override agreements or contracts that some neighborhoods, such as Roland Park, have put in place to ban multi-unit homes.
Dorsey told fellow council members that converting single-family homes into multi-unit buildings is already permitted in some neighborhoods, which are predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods. He said that wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods do not allow multi-unit homes, effectively excluding those with lower incomes and perpetuating segregation.
“If you live in Sandtown [Winchester] In a 2,000 square foot home, this home can be converted into two or three apartments. “But if you live in Hamilton, in a house that’s 2,000 square feet or 3,000 square feet or 4,000 square feet for that matter, that home can never, under any circumstances, be more than one condominium.”
Right now, a city zoning map looks like a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of pieces of different sizes, shapes, and rules about what can – and can’t – be built. There are various pockets of multi-unit zoning throughout the city, largely near the heart of the city and in East and West Baltimore, but much of the city does not permit construction of anything other than single-family homes.
Much of Northeast Baltimore, particularly along the Harford Road corridor represented by Dorsey, does not allow multiple unit divisions.
“I live in a great neighborhood and I would like more people to have a chance to live in my neighborhood,” Dorsey said at Monday’s council meeting. “The Bumper Housing Act reverses the trend of deindustrialization and the legalization of segregation, and decides where we can get housing and where we can’t get more housing throughout the city of Baltimore.”
Dorsey’s bill, introduced Monday night, was introduced by the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that was born out of a housing discrimination lawsuit against the city of Baltimore. The Housing Partnership manages housing vouchers for thousands of low-income families.
“Intended policies, such as this law, promote the creation of diverse communities and are essential to providing our city with another mechanism for deconstructing exclusionary zoning,” Adria Crutchfield, CEO of the Housing Partnership, said in a statement.
Baltimore’s population has been declining for decades and there are at least 15,000 vacant and abandoned homes in the city, but Dorsey said there is already a housing shortage, especially for middle-income earners. He referred to a 2020 report commissioned by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes city living, which studied demand and market trends. The report said Baltimore could reverse its declining population if it had the right mix of available housing.
The report concluded that “if sufficient housing could be built or renovated, at least 5,300 families could be added to the city of Baltimore each year for the next five years.”
Alexander Cruz is a partner at CR of Maryland, which has purchased and renovated hundreds of homes in Baltimore in recent years, primarily targeting vacant homes, selling them to investors and managing them as rentals. He said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Dorsey’s bill.
“There is a huge shortage of affordable rental housing available, especially one- and two-bedroom units, which will alleviate it almost immediately,” Cruz said.
Take a vacant 1,200-square-foot home in a neighborhood that’s only for one-unit homes, Cruz said. Maybe you could rent for $1800 a month. But if the renovation costs are too high, no one will buy it and the house will remain vacant. This same virtual home can be split into a one-bedroom apartment that rents for $800 and a two-bedroom apartment that rents for $1,250.
Cruz said that with this additional $350 a month rental income, it makes more financial sense to buy and renovate the property, which also increases the housing supply and provides affordable rentals.
Khalil Okdah of Charm City Buyers said he currently works in a large, beautiful house with an English basement, but the off-street parking requirement means it can only be one unit.
“It’s perfectly organized so there’s a separate unit downstairs and then the owner lives upstairs, which is three floors – plenty of space,” Okdah said. “Unfortunately, we were not able to re-divide this area. So when that happens, the value of the property drops.”
Josh Savage is a real estate agent and wholesaler who said he has helped investors purchase hundreds of homes in Baltimore through his wholesale business. More rental units means more rental income, and more rental income means more investment in Baltimore, Savage said.
“You will see communities that have really fallen apart start to put them back together again because now there is a reason for someone to invest there,” Savage said.
China Boak Terrell is one developer who disagrees that Dorsey’s bill will be positive. She is the executive director of a non-profit organization called the American Communities Trust. She said Baltimore’s residents are bleeding not because of a housing shortage, but because of violence, inadequate schools, disinvestment and low income.
She said the city has tens of thousands of vacant or abandoned homes, and the reason they aren’t there is a lack of demand. Boak Terrell said Dorsey’s bill would trample the right to self-determination by neighborhoods, and could actually destabilize black neighborhoods by taking away the priority of home ownership.
“This bill was framed as a valid crusade against apartheid, but in reality it would be very detrimental to black wealth,” Boak Terrell said.
Shay Mokai believes the bill will provide an affordable route to home ownership. He manages Infinite Homes, which primarily purchases and renovates vacant homes in Baltimore. Forget about the developers, he said, and think about the impact on people who can’t afford to buy a home – especially with inflation.
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This change in policy will allow first-time home buyers to add one or two units to a home and help them pay off the mortgage, Mokai said. A grandmother who lives alone and struggles to pay her bills can turn her house into a duplex and stay in her neighbourhood.
“I think he’s a genius,” he said.
By allowing more types of housing throughout the city, Dorsey said this bill would help address Baltimore’s history of racial housing policies, which at one time codified segregated neighborhoods and allowed exclusionary neighborhoods throughout the city.
Guilford was developed in North Baltimore a century ago by the Roland Park Co. Its neighborhoods are designed to exclude blacks, Jews, and Catholics. Guilford and other Baltimore neighborhoods used “racial covenants” in businesses that specifically prohibited blacks from moving in.
Tim Criss, legal counsel for the Guilford Society, said his neighborhood had long rejected those racist policies and had become more diverse. Today, people of all backgrounds and religions move to Guilford, in part because the neighborhood only allows single-family homes, he said, and Dorsey’s proposal wouldn’t change that.
Chris said nearby neighborhoods, including Roland Park, Northwood and Homeland, all have agreements that prohibit multi-unit homes.
“[Residents] We want to settle in knowing it’s a one-family residential neighborhood and that they’re not going to wake up one day with a contractor next door dividing a house into four units.”