Housing is a Human Right, Looking Ahead to a Second Term — My December 2020 Update
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
This week we welcome new City leadership and thank other leaders for years of dedicated service. On Tuesday, our new Mayor Brandon Scott took the oath of office, along with Comptroller Bill Henry. Yesterday, many new incoming members of the City Council along with a new Council President were sworn in, as several members have retired or decided to move on.
I'd like to recognize a few people in particular. First, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who is one of Baltimore's most beloved elected officials, having been a fixture in City government for over 40 years. Councilwoman Clarke was a progressive leader in this City when there wasn't really even a word for it.
As a woman on the City Council she was a true trailblazer, and was also the first woman ever to be elected to the office of City Council President. There is hardly a person in City government who hasn't been mentored by Mary Pat, and we all owe her so much. Thank you, Mary Pat!
I also have to recognize my colleague Shannon Sneed, who is beloved in East Baltimore's District 13, and across the City. Last term, Shannon was one of the most effective legislators on the Council, in addition to running one of the most responsive offices. She's moving on to do many more amazing things and I can't wait to work with her.
There's too much I'd like to say about my colleagues last term and in the term head than I can write here in a single e-mail. Suffice it to say that I'm really looking forward to working with my colleagues, new and old, to get things done for the City of Baltimore.
Housing Is A Human Right
Adequate housing is a basic necessity and every person has a right to it. In Baltimore, there are so many layers to the struggle to make housing a human right.
When I authored and passed the Baltimore HOME Act in 2019, we took a step towards providing fair housing access to more Baltimoreans, specifically those who pay for their monthly rent with a source other than cash.
Another important layer is the services our city provides for those experiencing housing insecurity. Every night in Baltimore there are thousands of people who experience some level of homelessness, and as the economic crisis deepens, housing experts fear a potentially devastating increase in evictions.
It's a big part of why I introduced Council Bill 20-0592 to create the Office to End Homelessness. Baltimore's homeless services functions have long been characterized by inconsistent leadership, a failure to adequately plan, and deployment of archaic and ill-conceived strategies. This bill would also create Baltimore's first locally-funded housing voucher program, established as part of a "move-on" strategy, a pathway from homelessness into permanent supportive housing and then into having continued housing assistance when wrap-around services are no longer necessary.
Unfortunately this bill, unanimously passed by the Council and with across-the-board support from the City's housing and homeless services advocates and providers, was not signed by the outgoing Mayor before the end of the term. I intend to promptly reintroduce this bill, and I believe we will succeed the second time around.
Last month, these challenges really came to a head, however, when I began receiving calls from concerned advocates who had observed signs posted by a well-known homeless encampment under the I-83 underpass, announcing that the area would be "cleaned" in the coming weeks.
Make no mistake, "cleaning" actually means "clearing" a homeless encampment, which is not only offensive, but also a universally rejected strategy, and has been for some time. It does nothing but worsen the situation.
More importantly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC has expressly condemned this approach in its formal guidelines. And yet, somehow Baltimore City was considering doing just this.
I raised the alarm on social media and in direct communications with the Mayor's office, and thankfully, we were able to avoid this action this time.
But we must continue to look ahead. I intend to introduce legislation this term prohibiting clearing of homeless encampments.
Rallying with Housing Our Neighbors at the March for Housing.
A few days later, I joined Housing Our Neighbors and others for the March for Housing, demanding an end to the administration's plan to return residents from hotels and other temporary housing to the congregate shelters that were close in April due to COVID-19.
Thankfully, on this issue too, the city was able to reverse course, and will continue to pay area hotels to provide safe housing through the pandemic.
The final legislative success of my first term was one I am particularly proud of, understate as it may be. I co-authored Council Bill 20-0557 Councilwoman Shannon Sneed to create a Baltimore City Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and that bill took effect without Mayor Young's signature.
An APA sets a standard process for issuing regulations that are necessary to implement laws and establish processes for exactly how the public interfaces with government. For example, the Department of Transportation considers requests for traffic calming on neighborhood streets, and must establish a policy of standard practices for doing so. In the absence of an administrative procedure law, the Department is left to come up with that policy without any external review, and without accepting any public comment on a proposed policy before it is put into practice. And in many many cases this results in a new and unique process being prescribed in each new law that requires regulations be adopted, reinventing the wheel again and again.
Baltimore City has for some time been the only major jurisdiction in Maryland without an administrative procedure law in place, and the result has been inefficient and opaque government. This important legislation has flown under the radar a bit, because, well, administrative procedure is rarely newsworthy in its own right. However, this is a really big deal for our city and I am very proud to have co-led this effort.
More Coming Back Next Term
Not long before Monday's Council meeting, Mayor Young delivered a veto message to my towing reforms bill. This makes two consecutive terms in which proposed reforms have failed to be enacted, and as a result it has been assured that predatory practices will continue, and minority-owned companies will continue to be at a disadvantage in competing for City towing work. This bill, in addition to making a wide range of overdue reforms, would have also required a study of how to modernize the dispatch of the hundreds of tow trucks ordered by the City each week, a process that has not been re-examined in half a century.
Our now former Mayor also declined to sign a bill of mine that merely required a group of City agencies undertake a study of parking benefits provided to certain City employees at taxpayer expense. This would have been the only bill the entire term for the sole purpose of requiring a study, so that the Council and others can make more informed decisions.
I'm looking forward to bringing these bills back next term, as well as other bills requiring studies of persistent problems, like how to prevent and more quickly remove junk cars being left on neighborhood streets.
To read more about my legislative work, visit www.electryandorsey.com, where all of my bills are listed.
Policy Win—Traffic Calming Procedure
Discussing the Administrative Procedure Act above, I used the example of traffic calming requests as the kind of process that will be developed more openly under the new law. I used that example because it is one of the most frequent requests my office hears, the highest volume request received by Baltimore City Department of Transportation from all across the City, and a matter where the process in place has been unfair, unreliable, and unchanged for many years.
When community members come to me with concerns about dangerous driving in their communities, the next step is almost always for me to connect them with someone at BCDOT, advocate on their behalf, and hopefully have BCDOT design and install traffic calming to make the street safer.
Sometimes, BCDOT does an excellent job quickly learning about the issue and installing an improvement that addresses the problem and benefits the community. On the other hand, sometimes community members struggle to have their input taken seriously, or experience unnecessary difficulty and a lack of follow through.
For months I have been directly inquiring with BCDOT about what their standard process for evaluating traffic calming issues was. To my disappointment, I found they simply had no documented process for dealing with these routine requests. This lack of structure has clearly been a factor in the sometimes poor results and absence of accountability residents experience working with BCDOT.
After a few months of effort, I'm thankful to be able to say that BCDOT is finalizing a new standard policy, which they'll soon be able to share with communities that are advocating for neighborhood quality of life. This will create a predictable process and help communities hold BCDOT accountable for results. I'm excited for this and looking forward to being able to share more details.
Reflecting on my First Term and Looking Ahead to the Second
I'm honored to be coming back for a second term on the Baltimore City Council. In my first term, we worked together to pass some really meaningful bills.
Bills like my Complete Streets legislation, that challenges the City to pursue a more efficient transportation system that provides for the most vulnerable road users.
Or like my legislation and charter amendment making our Inspector General independent from the political influence which previously blocked important investigations.
After OIG we moved on to a complete package of government accountability measures, including whistleblower protections, two bills reforming financial disclosures, including one specifically applying to elected officials, and a final bill empowering the ethics board with the full might of the Inspector General's office.
On the housing policy front, unfortunately, we'll have to try again on my legislation establishing an Office to End Homelessness and a locally-funded voucher program. But we had other successes, like ending housing discrimination based on source-of-income, and providing a property tax credit for the lowest-paid city employees.
I put a lot on the table this term, and I'm glad we had more wins than losses. I firmly believe we'll succeed the next time around on towing, a voucher program, and other efforts.
Looking Ahead to Next Term
Being a local legislator is a unique role. There's a lot we can't do, like passing Medicare-for-All, a Green New Deal, or funding the Red Line. But what my colleagues and I can do is use the tools available to us to leave our city better than it was before.
That's why I'm determined to work with as many partners as possible to advance economic justice, racial equity, and government accountability in Baltimore City.
I'm looking forward to hearing your ideas, and I already have a few of my own. Next term, I plan to take on a few key initiatives, including:
Baltimore's first rent stabilization bill. Rent stabilization legislation is one of the most important policies to allow for development without displacement. By protecting against dramatic rent increases and ensuring that tenants who want to stay can do so, we can build stronger communities. This is an effort that was last tried here almost 50 years ago, and I think it's time we bring it up again.
Ending exclusionary zoning. Single-family zoning is one of the original policies contributing to persistent segregation and structural racism in our City. We need to end it now. A hundred years ago Baltimore was the nation's pioneer in exclusionary zoning based on race. Today's zoning code allows the same outcomes by covert means. Just four years ago, certain changes were made that doubled down on exclusion, and I am committed to undoing this and much more, no matter how contentious it gets.
Raising wages for workers. I think of this as a "big idea," one that faces steeper odds and a tough fit, but that is absolutely essential to begin the conversation on. Even in the age of the $15 minimum wage, we know that a true living wage is closer to $28/hr here in Maryland. It's time to consider a much more adequate minimum wage, like $27.25, which is $20 more than the current federal minimum wage, and makes way more sense.
In a City where public safety is broken, I'm going to continue to be a voice for a more defensible approach. As a legislator, that means pursuing policy solutions to undo the problems that racism and redlining built. It means undoing denials of access to transportation, housing, and other core opportunities.
And it also means demanding accountability from public servants who possess and direct the authority to take lives, property, and dignity in the name of keeping order.
I'm willing to work with anyone willing to have an honest, good faith conversation. And there's not a moment to waste.
There's More Where This Came From
That's all for this update. If you like what you're reading here, you can always make a small donation to support my campaign fund. Your support keeps me working on the issues that matter to me, and ensures that I can run a successful campaign without large corporate or PAC donations.
Remember, the world keeps changing, but we all get at least a little bit of a say in what kind of change we see.