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Baltimore Lawmaker Aims To Allow More Multifamily Housing In Low-Density Neighborhoods

Baltmore's skyline from the east

A Baltimore City legislator wants to ease restrictions on converting single-family homes into multifamily residential properties in an attempt to provide more affordable housing, particularly in wealthier areas of the city.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey introduced legislation titled The Abundant Housing Act to the city council on Monday. The bill, Dorsey said, aims to dismantle “exclusionary policies” maintaining segregation, creating housing scarcity and increasing housing costs. 

“Current zoning is not rationalizing the ability to create housing on the basis of health and safety, but rather on intentional segregation, forcing some people into certain neighborhoods, and forcing other people out of other neighborhoods,” Dorsey said Monday in a Twitter thread in which he announced plans to introduce the bill. 

Dorsey didn't return a call to his office seeking comment for this story. 

The councilman’s bill expands the right to convert single-family homes into a multifamily property in nine residentially zoned areas in the city. Currently only two types of residential zoning in the city allow for turning single-family homes into multifamily units.  

If approved the bill would expand the number of properties eligible for subdivision from less than 15,000 to roughly 41,000, according to Dorsey.  

Under the bill, a single-family home that is at least 1,500 SF could be split into a maximum of two residential units. Properties of at least 2,250 SF could be divided into three units, and properties of at least 3K SF could be converted into four units. 

In some cases, however, more units can be added to those properties. 

One additional unit would be allowed on a site if a home is located within 750 feet of community accessible transit, a grocery store of at least 10K SF in size, or a city-designated Main Street. 

More units could also be added to single-family homes in affluent parts of the city. The number of units permitted would be increased by one if a property is located in a census tract where the average household income is 200% of the metro region’s area median income.

Instituting these changes, Dorsey said on Twitter, would rectify the inequity of the city’s zoning codes that allow a 2K SF home in one neighborhood to be broken into two units, while a 4K SF home in another neighborhood cannot be converted.   

"A scarcity of 1-bedroom units is driving up costs for them, making voucher placement difficult, and leading many adults to continue living in groups in single-family houses, further adding pressure to the home sale market, further driving up housing costs," Dorsey said in the Twitter thread. 

So far five other council members have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. The council consists of 14 members representing individual districts and a city council president who is elected citywide. If the council passes the bill, Mayor Brandon Scott would then have to decide to either sign it into law or veto the legislation. 

Housing advocates in Baltimore — despite nearly 8% of the city’s housing stock being vacant and abandoned — have long argued the city faces a housing shortage

Over the years residents, activists and legislators lobbied for and approved a variety of measures in attempts to boost the development of quality affordable housing, particularly for older residents.  

Arguably the most meaningful of those efforts to date was the creation of an affordable housing trust fund. City voters in 2016 approved a ballot measure amending the city charter to create the fund, but without a funding mechanism. 

After more than two years of struggling, supporters, including Dorsey, finally passed legislation in the city council dedicating a revenue source to the fund by raising transfer and recordation fees on property sales of at least $1M. 

At the time, both city budget analysts and commercial real estate interests warned the tax increase may hinder sales of nonresidential buildings in the city.