You may have never heard of Sherman Howell. But if you’ve been an elected official, a candidate or politically active in Howard County, you not only heard of Sherman, you heard from Sherman, not just once, but on multiple occasions.
Sherman died Aug. 2, so we’ll hear from him no more. But his voice echoes on for the causes he promoted. His Aug. 11 funeral at St. John Baptist church testified to his lasting political influence, and the strong connection between the Black church, civil rights and politics.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball spoke of Sherman’s impact on his plans for more affordable housing — an issue on which Sherman’s voice was loud, long and persistent. Three of the five Howard County Council members were present, as were a majority of the county’s state senators and delegates. Gov. Wes Moore sent a representative and a memorial, as did the U.S. Senators.
Sherman’s African American Coalition, a group he founded 20 years ago, had endorsed almost all of them, particularly Moore in a hotly contested Democratic primary last year.
Here’s how his good friend and political ally C. Vernon Gray, who served 20 years on the county council, described Sherman: “Community Advocate, Influencer, Freelance Writer, Activist, Visionary, Civil Rights Leader, Change Maker and in the words of his idol, [the late U.S. Rep.] John Lewis, a Good Troublemaker.”
Sherman was willing to make trouble for those he supported. While he may have gotten a master’s degree from American University and become a software engineer for federal agencies, Sherman never forgot where he came from, a cotton farm in rural Tennessee where he attended “colored” public schools.
“Sherman was authentic and passionate,” said Gray. “He was relentless and shameless in his advocacy. What you saw is what you got — never confrontational but always forceful and respectful. In almost every meeting in which Sherman participated, he never failed to mention the values and vision of Columbia of which he was a strong believer. A belief which was branded and deepened through his many conversations with James Rouse, founder of Columbia.”
Sherman “took no prisoners in his advocacy. He even sometimes made me cringe with what he said,” Gray said. “Sherman knew the time for action was now and that you had to make those in positions of trust and power feel uncomfortable. He felt ‘comfort was the enemy of progress.’”
Sherman was very fair yet very partisan. The all-day candidate forums he would set up at St. John Baptist on a Saturday before the primary would include every candidate on the ballot — third party candidates and people with no chance of winning shared the same stage with incumbents. But only Democrats would win endorsements.
Work for Black equality in education, health care, business opportunity and elections have shown great progress during Sherman’s 80 years — all areas he had championed for decades — but the goal for more affordable housing seems as elusive as it has ever been.
Elusive affordable housing
The pandemic shut down new home construction, the lack of houses on the market has driven prices to new highs, and the Federal Reserve’s drastic interest rate hikes have doubled mortgage rates, while discouraging older homeowners from downsizing.
In February, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition published a report titled “Columbia at 55: Creeping Segregation and Lack of Affordable Housing Threatens a Legacy of Black/White Integration.” Summing up its conclusions, it said:
“By many standards — income, health, education and crime — Columbia has been a successful social experiment. However, it has failed to meet the developer’s original vision in its later villages and is experiencing creeping segregation as the Black and White communities become increasingly clustered. Additionally, Columbia is no longer defying nationwide trends on one key measure of opportunity, but rather mirroring them: Housing affordability is declining, just as it has across American society over the past 40 years. These are troubling trends which require a rethinking of policy at the local level and even at the federal level.”
One of the report’s key but obvious points was that after Columbia’s first five villages were completed in the mid-1970s, the subsequent four villages had substantially less apartments and rental housing. This is particularly noticeable in the last two, Dorsey’s Search and River Hill. Not coincidentally, they do not have Columbia mailing addresses, but Ellicott City for Dorsey’s Search and Clarksville for River Hill. No one these days associates Clarksville with affordable housing.
My principal problem with the report is that it isolates the housing situation in Columbia from the rest of Howard County, particularly the Route 1 corridor where new apartments and town houses have gone up and more are likely to occur. The county government in the past simply did not force developers and builders to put up housing that people below our high median incomes can afford. Even the plans for 12-15% of “affordable housing” in the thousands of new mid-rise apartments in downtown Columbia will not make much of a dent.
The report also fails to note the disappearance of the federal housing programs that helped subsidize housing in Columbia’s early years. The National Low Income Housing Coalition notes that “no significant investment in new housing affordable to the lowest income people has been made in more than 30 years, and a great shortage of housing affordable to that population still exists.”
Much more demand than supply
Closer to home, the new General Plan, “Howard County by Design,” is no more encouraging. “The existing jobs-housing ratio in Howard County is much lower than in nearly every other nearby county. This has created a ‘pent-up’ demand of approximately 20,000 more households that would prefer to live in Howard County if options were available to them. Combined with the market demand of 31,000 units associated with projected job growth, there is housing demand for over 50,000 new housing units over the next 20 years.”
“The current estimated land use capacity for new housing in Howard County … is only 15,200 units.” That’s less than half or a third of what the plan says the county needs.
“Land use changes will also need to occur in the county to accommodate this residential demand,” says the draft general plan.
The voices against redevelopment and higher densities — “we don’t need more renters” — tend to be much louder than the persistent but respectful pleadings of someone like Sherman Howell. But as speakers at his funeral said, with Sherman gone, others need to take up his cause.