Guest Commentary: The Fight for Working Families
By John Olszewski Jr.
Former Sun reporter Alec MacGillis’s recent article on Jared Kushner’s real estate empire in Baltimore County (published by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2017) was a hard-hitting critique of a flawed and demoralizing system. It showed the ways in which Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and the current administration speak out of both sides of their mouths about caring for our communities and “making America great.” It also hits home in personal ways.
The communities of Cove Village, Carriage Hill, Highland Village, and others are our communities. They are made up of Baltimore County residents who feel a strong sense of pride but who have been stigmatized and often end up feeling frustrated or hopeless. These are our Baltimore County neighbors — working-class families reflecting a diversity of races and communities — who are being left behind by the greed of others.
Residents of these neighborhoods remind me of the struggles I have seen in the eastern Baltimore County rowhouse community of my childhood, as well as in the Dundalk neighborhood my wife and I have lived for more than a decade. As a long-life Baltimore County resident who grew up in the shadow of a steel mill, I understand the roots of this cynicism, frustration, and hopelessness.
I had friends and classmates who worked alongside their fathers before Bethlehem Steel shut its doors for good. Some slipped into addiction and poverty and others wanted to get as far away from home as possible. I also knew many parents, including my own, who instilled the values of hard work and learning — whether in a trade or higher education — to earn an honest day’s pay and become part of a community.
That is why, for almost 10 years as a state legislator, I worked hard to fight for public policies that improved the lives of working families in Baltimore County — by creating more quality jobs, increased wages, and benefits for workers and promoting fair housing and opportunity for all.
That is why I supported raising the minimum wage and was the lead sponsor of both the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act and Employment Advancement Right Now, a job-training program that has given hundreds the tools to advance their careers under both Democratic and Republican governors. It is why I was proud to support the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative (BRNI), which is demonstrating how strategic investment in local housing and businesses can facilitate healthier, more sustainable communities with a growing tax base and improved quality of life.
While these issues always have been important to me, my sense of urgency has become even more pressing since becoming a new father and as I raise a family in Baltimore County. I see our county’s future through my daughter’s eyes, and while I love my county, our housing story is among many that deserve to be better.
Not all landlords are driven by greed and not every tenant or renter is trying to cheat the system, but there is plenty of room in between, and that space is precisely where local government can and should drive positive change.
As MacGillis notes, “Baltimore County has no public housing for a population of more than 825,000, so these and similar complexes have become the de facto substitute.” So, one must wonder: As the third largest jurisdiction in Maryland, how can Baltimore County government be bold on affordable housing? How can Baltimore County be bold on community revitalization?
We can start by fully committing to end housing discrimination in Baltimore County by source of income. We can figure out a more proactive county role in housing policy, oversight, and programs. We can explore opportunities to collaborate with developers on affordable housing projects across the county so that we decrease the number of neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. And on a statewide level, we can partner with our elected representatives in Annapolis to continue and grow programs like BRNI.
When someone takes on working families and tries to undermine their efforts to get ahead in life, I take it personally. And the fight for fair housing — a fight that is one of many that we must win to secure the future of our working families — has been dropped on our doorstep courtesy of Jared Kushner. It’s a fight that we all must take personally and in which we all must engage.
John Olszewski, Jr. (D) is a former state Delegate who represented southeast Baltimore County in the Maryland General Assembly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @JohnnyOJr