A Push For Denser Housing In Maryland Faces Doubt Among Lawmakers An ambitious proposal to allow townhomes and cottages in many of Maryland's traditional single-family neighborhoods received its first hearing in the Maryland House of Delegates Wednesday.
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NPR logo A Push For Denser Housing In Maryland Faces Doubt Among Lawmakers

A Push For Denser Housing In Maryland Faces Doubt Among Lawmakers

"Middle housing" such as townhomes would be allowed in some single-family neighborhoods in Maryland under a bill being considered in the state's House of Delegates. veggiefrog/Flickr hide caption

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A bill that would allow more housing in Maryland's most desirable communities faced skepticism during a committee hearing in the state's House of Delegates on Wednesday.

In an effort to mitigate housing shortages in the state and introduce more affordable options to amenities-rich neighborhoods, legislation from Maryland State Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Derwood) would open the door to denser housing types in "high-opportunity" areas where current law permits only single-family homes.

The Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 targets census tracts that are affluent, transit-adjacent or near a large number of jobs, and would open up those areas to structures like duplexes and townhouses.

The legislation is modeled after similar laws recently passed in Minneapolis and Oregon. But it faced tough questions from delegates on the Environment and Transportation committee, who expressed doubts that the state should get involved in land use, which is traditionally the purview of local government.

"This does usurp local authority," said Del. Regina Boyce (D-Baltimore City). "As a state, we're going to tell somebody else how to use their land."

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The bill's primary purpose is to generate more housing in regions that need it, says Stewart, a 31-year-old democratic socialist serving his first term. But he says it could also take cars off the road, cut back on suburban sprawl and chip away at the racial and economic segregation promoted by single-family development.

"We have to act boldly if we want to reverse decades of exclusionary policies that have blocked working people and people of color from high-opportunity neighborhoods," Stewart said.

Similar proposals have failed in California and Virginia.

In the commonwealth, a panel of lawmakers rejected a "middle housing" bill from Virginia Del. Ibraheem Samirah (D-Herndon) largely on the basis that it would override local control over certain aspects of land use. But supporters of state-mandated "upzoning" say that's the point, because local squabbles over development can limit governments' ability to meet demand for new housing.

Proposals to build more housing in suburban and urban areas routinely encounter resistance from homeowners who believe new development — especially higher-occupancy homes like duplexes — would decrease property values, worsen traffic, crowd schools and introduce poverty into otherwise well-to-do neighborhoods. Housing advocates say efforts to block new residential development do more harm than good.

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, the Washington D.C. region must add an additional 75,000 homes — above what's already in the pipeline — by 2030 to meet demand and stabilize home prices, which have swelled amid a regional housing shortage.

Representatives of the Maryland Building Industry Association and left-leaning advocacy groups Greater Greater Washington, the Sierra Club Montgomery County and the Coalition for Smarter Growth testified in favor of the bill, as did an economist with the conservative Mercatus Center.

"Adding a few triplexes to predominantly single-family neighborhoods would lower rent for everyone," Mercatus economist Salim Furth said in written testimony. "Our back-of-the-envelope math suggests that adding one triplex to every block in a desirable area would prevent a 6% increase in rent. Increased density would also benefit businesses that rely on foot traffic. The effect on home prices is uncertain: they might rise or fall, but only slightly."

Del. Andrea Fletcher Harrison (D-Prince George's County) questioned whether the proposal would force suburban residents to accept unwanted urbanization in their communities.

"Housing is a choice," Harrison said. "It appears to me ... that you want almost every place to be an urban development."

Stewart pushed back on that, saying his legislation would only affect select parts of the state and would not allow large apartment towers to be constructed in otherwise low-density neighborhoods.

The Modest Home Choices Act is part of a legislative package Stewart is calling "Homes for All." The suite also includes a proposal to bolster renters' rights and create the state's first mixed-income public housing program.

The bill must receive a favorable report from the Environment and Transportation Committee to advance to the full House for a vote.

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