By AUDREY DECKER Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau
After a polarizing 2020 presidential election and a worldwide pandemic, Maryland lawmakers are rethinking how to conduct voting.
The General Assembly is considering multiple pieces of legislation that would ensure Marylanders can vote by mail and vote early.
In states across the country, there have been efforts made by Republican lawmakers to limit access to voting.
Georgia’s new voting law imposes multiple restrictions for voters, such as shrinking the amount of time voters have to request absentee ballots, creating strict ID requirements for absentee ballots, and limiting drop boxes.
Maryland, however, seems to be going the opposite direction.
The Maryland General Assembly is Democrat-controlled. Historically, Gov. Larry Hogan has been critical of former president Donald Trump. The Republican governor said that the voter fraud claims of the 2020 presidential election are “wrong for the country,” on PBS in November.
House bill 745 would increase the number of early voting sites statewide, and has passed in both chambers.
Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, sponsor of the bill, said that because of the pandemic, there has been a lot of innovation in how voting takes place in different states, and Maryland is learning from that.
Another one of his bills, HB156, aims to secure accessible voting to several groups who have historically faced issues, such as students, overseas military personnel and senior communities. The bill passed in the House and is awaiting action in a Senate committee.
Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Anne Arundel, sponsors the Senate version of the bill, SB283. The bill passed in the House on Tuesday and awaits review in the Senate.
Additional voting legislation has been introduced by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins, D-Montgomery. HB1047 would ensure that Maryland keeps its ballot drop boxes and gives people who use mail-in voting the ability to correct any errors before their ballot is rejected.
Many of these ideas were successful practices from 2020 that lawmakers are trying to codify into law, Wilkins said.
On Wednesday, the Senate advanced HB1047, which addresses the number of ballot boxes in the state as well as how election boards deal with absentee ballots that are unsigned, or if more than one is received.
Maryland does not verify signatures, said Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, and this bill would not change that.
Republican lawmakers remain concerned about fraud. Without verifying signatures and multiple ballots coming in, there’s a potential to disenfranchise the correct and proper voter, said Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-Kent, Queen Anne’s, Cecil, Caroline. There needs to be ballot verification, Hershey said.
Wilkins is also sponsoring the Value My Vote Act, HB222, which guarantees the right to vote for incarcerated individuals and requires a drop box to be provided in every jail and correctional facility. The bill passed in the House and is awaiting action in a Senate committee.
“It’s important for legislators to really legislate based on the facts and to elevate the need for every single voter to have equal access and full access to the ballot,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins is also sponsoring HB1048, which would establish a permanent absentee ballot list, so voters could proactively be mailed their ballot before each election. The bill passed in the Senate on Tuesday and awaits review in the House.
However, some lawmakers are frustrated with how the majority party has been pushing this voting legislation.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, sponsored Senate bill 233, which would require the State Board of Elections to study other states that have safeguards for absentee ballots.
The bill he sponsored was designed to combat any possible flaws in the system, Simonaire said. However, it didn’t come up for a vote in committee.
“In Maryland, it doesn’t take massive fraud to change the outcome of an election,” Simonaire said.
Simonaire’s party is concerned with the integrity of the 2020 election, so it’s incumbent upon legislators to make sure the public has a high level of confidence in the election process, Simonaire said.
A significant number of members of the minority party have voted against every election bill, raising a “red herring” argument about voter fraud, even though voter fraud is vanishingly rare in the U.S., Luedtke said.
“My concern, fundamentally, is that you can’t have one party that supports the right to vote and one that doesn’t,” Luedtke said.
His party is not trying to suppress the vote, Simonaire said, rather they want to put in place safeguards to ensure that there is integrity in the election process.
“We want a balanced approach where we have access and safeguards and it’s a well-run election process,” Simonaire said. “We will support that, but we don’t support the one-sidedness of it without safeguards.”
Senate bill 683 passed in the Senate on Friday, and is awaiting a decision from the governor. Similar to Wilkins’ HB1048, this bill would allow voters to be on a permanent absentee ballot list.
By RAYONNA BURTON-JERNIGAN and CLARA LONGO DE FREITAS
Capital News Service Washington Bureau
State legislators in 47 states have introduced 361 bills so far this year to restrict voting, according to a Brennan Center for Justice Report released Thursday.
“In the states, legislatures are rushing to enact restrictive voting laws, the most significant since the Jim Crow era,” Brennan Center president Michael Waldman tweeted. “With the For the People Act, Congress has the power to stop that cold.”
The report said the state laws were being proposed and passed in response to “baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities.”
Roughly 30 percent of the restrictive laws have been proposed in the last month, the center said.
Most of the bills are aimed at cutting down on absentee voting, while almost a quarter are seeking tougher voter identification requirements, the Brennan report said.
Arizona, Georgia and Texas accounted for nearly 100 of the voting restriction bills, according to the center.
The report was released the same day the House Administration Committee held a hearing on voting rights and access. The panel’s chairman, G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, mentioned the Brennan report in his remarks.
“All too often, access to the ballot has been neither free nor fair,” he said.
The 2020 election, which had a record turnout of over 150 million people, has prompted Democrats in Congress to try to pass the “For The People Act,”which would expand voters’rights, improve access to the ballot box and bars to reduce voter discrimination. The measure also would overhaul campaign finance laws and end partisan gerrymandering of districts.
House Democrats passed the bill in March.
Republicans in Congress have called the bill a power grab by the Democrats.
Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Wisconsin, said the bill never had proper hearings before it was passed.
“Republicans want to ensure that every eligible person who wants to vote is able to cast a vote,” he insisted.
Voter discrimination has existed since the 15th Amendment guaranteeing voting rightswas ratified in 1870, Butterfield said.
“It is time we encourage people to vote, rather than continuing to erect barriers that seek to suppress the votes, and voices of communities,” Butterfield said.
North Carolina remains a “battlefield” in an “unending war” for access to the ballot, Allison Riggs, co-executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told lawmakers.
Voter suppression can take many forms, she said: lack of access to transportation, conflicts between work and shorter polling hours, or voting places without access to people with disabilities.
In her written testimony, Riggs said that Black and brown voters waited longer to vote and were the targets of misinformation. Black voters faced more barriers to participate due to unreliable mail service and discrimination, she added.
While there were successes in voting turnout in many states amid the pandemic, Black and Latino voters had their absentee ballots rejected at disproportionately high rates, Riggs noted.
Critics often focus on a specific set of jurisdictions when talking about voter suppression, such as Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida, said Sonja Diaz, the director of the UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative.
“But this frame too often leaves out an important fact,” Diaz said. “The attack on Americans’ fundamental right to free and fair access to the ballot happens everywhere.”
In the presidential election of 2020, 16.6 million Latino voters cast ballots, the single largest four-yearincrease for that group of voters. But many new voter suppression laws are being proposed or passed in the very states where Latinos played a significant role, Diaz said.
And voter barriers may have a lasting impression on first-time voters, she added.
Last year, the states with the largest increase in voter turnout compared to the 2016 presidential election were states that expanded access to the ballot, said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the voting rights project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Hawaii, California and Utah all saw increases in turnout after mail-in ballots were sent to every registered voter in their states.
In contrast, states with more restrictive laws and barriers had the lowest turnout, Johnson-Blanco said.
Barriers for voters included restrictive voter ID laws, cutbacks on early voting, elimination of polling places and restrictions on community-based voter registration groups, Johnson-Blanco said, adding that such laws continue to disproportionately impact voters of color.
“Without congressional action, the 2020 election and its aftermath may become an inflection point in our nation’s history,” she said. “With the future being one with states providing two different voting systems: one that provides access, and one that provides stringent restrictions.”
A Maryland bill would require all mental health facilities to report complaints of sexual abuse and harrasment to state agencies within 24 hours.
According to Disability Justice, an online resource for legal professionals dedicated to protecting people with developmental disabilities, only 3% of sexual abuse cases involving people with developmental disabilities are ever reported.
HB881, cross-filed with SB815, mandates all mental health facilities — licensed residential treatment centers, state facilities or hospitals with an inpatient psychiatric service — report complaints of sexual abuse and harassment within a 24-hour period to certain state agencies, including the Behavioral Health Administration, the Office of Health Care Quality and Child Protective Services.
Forty-one mental health facilities in Maryland, including residential treatment centers, would be added and required to file sexual abuse complaints to the designated agencies, under the bill.
There have been 38 reports of sexual abuse and harassment from five state psychiatric hospitals in 2020 to the Maryland Health Department, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis.
The Maryland Department of Health projects at least 240 additional reports from mental health facilities annually once the bill is implemented, the analysis states.
Patients at residential treatment centers are vulnerable to sexual violence because of their diagnosis, the isolation of the facility and lack of resources to report these allegations, advocates told Capital News Service.
Under current law, any reports of sexual abuse in any inpatient facility must be reported to the local department of social services and the appropriate law enforcement agency, according to the legislative analysis.
However, most sexual assault cases in inpatient facilities are handled internally even after reporting it to the police, advocates said.
There are a number of negative effects to one’s development from sexual abuse — depression, post-traumatic stress, poor self-esteem and more — according to advocates.
The bill states the Behavioral Health Administration must: develop policies and training for staff, assist patients with complaints and provide patient education to address and identify sexual abuse and harassment.
Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith, D-Prince George’s, House sponsor, said the bill will increase Maryland’s integrity at its private facilities.
“We’ll see a lot of positive change with the use of trauma-informed responses and proactive policies,” Valentino-Smith said during the House hearing.
State expenditures are expected to increase by $85,000 in fiscal year 2022, to hire staff in the Office of Health Care Quality to investigate the sexual abuse complaints and implement the bill, according to the fiscal analysis.
The Senate bill awaits a vote in the House Health and Government Operations committee, and the House version of the bill advanced in the Senate on Thursday.
Members of Congress are renewing efforts to reckon with the nation’sracial past, reintroducing legislation that could create a commission to study and possibly offer reparations to descendants of slaves.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., sponsored resolutions in both chambers of Congress in February to create a Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation.
“To realize our nation’s promise of being a place for liberty and justice for all, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continue to persist in our laws, our policies and our lives to this day,” Booker said in a statement.
A reparations commission would study the ways in which systemic racism and persisting racial inequalities have impacted African Americans since the first ship carrying slaves came to what is now the United States in 1619.
“We’ve made substantial progress, but the legacy of systemic racism clearly shows that the chains of slavery have yet to be broken,” Lee said in a statement. “This commission will educate and inform the public about the historical context for the current inequalities we witness each and every day.”
Current inequalities for Black Americans, according to the resolutions, began with slavery and continued with the government’s failure to “ensure the safety and security of African Americans” with post-Civil War Reconstruction, and in laws passed by state and local governments.
The resolution also calls attention to the “other discriminatory actions” against to Black Americans and other marginalized communities like Puerto Ricans and Native Americans.
Eighteen Democratic senators co-sponsored Booker’s measure, including Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen,Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois, Dianne Feinstein of California, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Patty Murray of Washington, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont also is a co-sponsor.
There are 129 Democratic co-sponsors on the Lee resolution.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, offered a separate measure in January, similar to proposals in earlier Congresses, to create a reparations commission. That bill has 169 Democratic co-sponsors.
President Joe Biden supports a study of the reparations issue, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Feb. 17.
“…He certainly would support a study of reparations, and.. understands that we don’t need a study to take action, right now, on systemic racism,” she said. “So he wants to take actions within his own government in the meantime.”
Republican lawmakers appear to be largely opposed to reparations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said two years ago: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.”
Dr. William Darity, a Duke University professor who specializes in reparations, has openly criticized previous legislative attempts at creating a commission solely for reparations, but supports the latest push for a truth commission instead.
“The goal of a truth commission in terms of giving us accurate information about America’s racial history, that is valuable in and of itself,” Darity said in an interview with Capital News Service. “I feel a lot more positive about the truth commission idea.”
In any reparations proposal that comes about, Darity said, there needs to be three specific directives: an eligibility requirement that all recipients are Black Americans who are descendants of slaves; a focus on closing the racial wealth gap, which at minimum could lead to “10-to-12 trillion dollars in government expenditures,” as well as direct payments to eligible recipients.
“Any bill going forward that is completely open-ended in terms of what the commission can choose to do is really, potentially, quite dangerous,” Darity said.
In a Feb. 17 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Booker reiterated his support for a truth, racial healing and transformation commission, saying that the country needs to study slavery’s “harmful and painful legacy.”
“The stain of slavery was not just inked in bloodshed, but in the overt, state-sponsored policies that fueled white supremacy and racism and have disadvantaged African Americans economically for generations,” Booker said.
There are almost 400 nonprofit organizations supporting reparations legislation, according to Kenniss Henry, legislative commission co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparation in America, or N’COBRA.
The recent support, Henry noted, is partly due to an increased public awareness of social justice issues following the death of George Floyd in May 2020.
“At no other time have we been able to generate such support,” Henry said. “The biggest obstacles that are in the way are in Congress, with the inability for there to be bipartisan support for key legislation that provides greater opportunities for marginalized people.”
By ALYSSA McKINNEY and CHRIS BARYLICKCapital News Service
For more than 40 years, the Georgetown Suites Hotel, located in one of Washington’s most desirable neighborhoods, was a popular lodging spot for business travelers and tourists visiting the nation’s capital.
But the hotel shut its doors in November, as demand for hotel rooms weakened due in part to the coronavirus pandemic. Soon, however, the property will reopen – but as an apartment building catering to affluent professionals.
“Housing is always a really good alternate use for buildings that are empty,” said Donnie Gross, a principal at Bethesda-based Varsity Investment Group, which acquired the 224-room hotel in December. The Georgetown Suites is attractive as a conversion project, according to Gross, because the location is irreplaceable and the rooms were already sizable and included kitchenettes.
The office space and conference rooms that once served the hotel’s guests will become a gym, game room and lounge area for apartment tenants. The building, currently under renovation, is set to open in June.
In many cities across the United States, the hospitality business is in crisis. That has prompted some struggling hotel owners to repurpose their properties for residential use, taking advantage of high apartment rental rates and strong demand for living space.
Operating profits for hotels declined 78% in 2020 when compared to 2019, according to Ben Klein, senior director at Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis (CBRE), a real estate services and investment firm. Falling profits are making it difficult for hotel owners to pay their mortgage debt. The hotel mortgage delinquency rate in December 2020 was 18.38%, up sharply from just 1.41% at the end of 2019.
Even though travel has started to pick up in recent weeks, some experts believe it will take several years for the hotel industry to fully recover. To survive the downturn, some hotel owners “may feel that they are better off converting into a more arguably predictable income stream,” said Jan Freitag, a senior vice president at Smith Travel Research, which tracks the hotel industry.
Traditionally, hotels have been more profitable than apartment buildings because the daily cost of renting a hotel room was considerably higher than the daily cost of renting an apartment by the month. But in the current business climate, that formula has been turned upside down, in part because there’s an oversupply of hotel rooms and an undersupply of apartments.
“The value of hotels has fallen enough and the value of apartments has risen enough” that it makes sense to convert, said Joshua Bernstein, chief executive of Bernstein Management Corp., based in Washington. He added that the high cost of constructing new apartment buildings and the scarcity of land in the Washington area are additional factors driving conversions.
In September, Bernstein acquired a 50% joint venture interest in the Virginian Suites hotel, in Arlington, Virginia. The property is currently being renovated and will open as a luxury apartment building this summer.
One of the busiest cities for potential hotel conversions is Baltimore. Even before the pandemic reduced travel to Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore’s hotel industry was struggling due to perceptions that the city is unsafe, according to industry analysts.
Those perceptions were partly related to weeks of protests that occurred in the spring of 2015, after a 25-year-old African-American resident named Freddie Gray died while in police custody. The death sparked weeks of unrest that led to hundreds of arrests and more than 300 businesses being damaged.
The protests “helped give Baltimore a black eye and made it difficult to attract group/convention business to the city,” said Mike Muldowney, an executive vice president at CBRE. With the pandemic hurting business travel even more, “the conversion of certain properties to multifamily units seemed logical.”
CBRE is currently marketing several Baltimore hotels that are expected to be converted to apartment buildings, including an Embassy Suites, a Crown Plaza and a Radisson Complex near downtown. The Crown Plaza and Radisson properties are currently owned by the McSam Hotel Group and the Embassy Suites is currently owned by Starwood Capital Group and the Schulte Hospitality Group.
“Although it will be necessary to combine rooms to make larger units,” said Muldowney, “the locations are central to a number of walkable employers in the central business district of Baltimore.”
Some public officials in the Washington area see the hotel crisis as an opportunity to increase the supply of affordable housing.
In high-cost housing regions such as Washington, converted hotel rooms – which tend to be smaller than traditional apartments – could provide relief for renters who can’t afford higher-end apartments.
In 2019, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that the metro area needs to add 320,000 housing units by 2030. At least 75% of that housing, the council said, “should be affordable to low- and middle-income households.”
Repurposing commercial real estate as housing dates back to the 1950s, although the trend didn’t pick up momentum until the 1970s when real estate developers converted shuttered factories to loft apartments and condominiums that attracted artists and young urban professionals.
In the 1990s, when firms started to relocate from outdated office buildings to modern glass towers, some of the older buildings were converted to apartments.
Between 2010 and 2020, more buildings were converted into apartment buildings than during any previous decade, according to a report by RENTCafe, a real estate listing and research service. Hotels have been one of the most popular building types to be converted into residential living, second only to factories.
Hotels would appear to be relatively easy to convert since they already have existing bathrooms and amenities that renters find attractive, including gyms, swimming pools, dog parks and trendy common areas.
However, hotel-to-apartment conversions are much more complicated than they appear, said Varsity’s Gross. Varsity has found that it’s often necessary to combine multiple hotel units to create a space large enough for an apartment. That requires removing walls, demolishing extra bathrooms while adding kitchens.
Conversion projects also can face roadblocks due to zoning, licensing and other legal requirements.
B.F. Saul Co., a real estate company based in Bethesda, Maryland, had plans to convert a 300-room Holiday Inn hotel in Gaithersburg into affordable housing for senior citizens. To complete the conversion, the property would need to be re-zoned from commercial to residential use. But Saul got into hot water with local officials several months ago when it tried to bypass the rezoning process.
“The Saul team attempted to use a clever legal interpretation to create a shortcut in the process and not go through the rezoning,” Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman said. “The city did not allow them to take that shortcut, and so I do not know where the project stands at the moment – or whether they intend to move forward with the rezoning.”
Saul didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Real estate investment firm MRK Partners had better luck in 2018 when it converted the 140-room Hyatt House Hotel in Gaithersburg into an affordable housing complex for residents aged 62 and older. The complex, now called Hillside Senior Living, is located six minutes from the Shady Grove Metro Station and is managed by Franklin Johnston Group, according to its website.
Even before the pandemic, Varsity was converting hotels to apartments. Although the company is best known for building off-campus student housing near colleges across the United States – including the University of Maryland in College Park – Varsity also develops market-rate and active-adult housing communities.
In 2017, it converted the former Saint James Suites hotel in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood into Varsity on K, a student-oriented apartment building near George Washington University.
Alexander Schwarz, 24, lived at Varsity on K from 2017 to 2018 during his senior year at George Washington University. Schwarz said his primary reason for choosing the building was its location and the Varsity’s reputation, but the fact that it used to be a hotel was an interesting piece of history as well.