County Council member Jen Terrasa prefiled legislation last week that would authorize a property tax credit for homeowners installing certain universal design features within their homes.
According to a news release Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, sent out about the bill, universal design "is about creating space that is accessible to everyone, regardless of age, size or ability."
In an interview, Terrasa said the tax credit is aimed to help households that would like to provide more accommodations for seniors or individuals with disabilities. She said it will be a good resource for families caring for relatives or seniors seeking to age in place.
"I think it will be helpful to people," she said, noting it's "part of a tool chest of what folks need."
The bill, which was prefiled Aug. 23, is co-sponsored by council member Calvin Ball, also a Columbia Democrat.
"It's important to encourage universal design in our homes as we keep an eye on renovation and revitalizing our current neighborhoods, helping to ensure that individuals with disabilities, seniors and anyone who wants to live more independently can," Ball said.
The tax credit only applies to features installed in existing residences. Some of the features the credit covers include access ramps, widened doorways, grab bars in bathrooms and stair glides or elevators.
To be eligible for the credit, homeowners must have installed the feature within a year of applying for it and spent at least $500.
The amount of the proposed credit is the lesser of $2,500 or 50 percent of the cost to install the feature.
The bill puts an annual cap of $100,000 on the total amount of credits the county can award. Credits would be granted in the order in which applications are received by the Department of Fiance, with any coming in after the annual cap has been reached being deferred until the next fiscal year.
"We know there's a need out there, (but) we don't know the extent of the need out there, and I think that protects the county wile we're feeling our way through it," Terrasa said.
Though the credit is targeted at homeowners facing access problems themselves or for a family member who lives with them or visits the home, Terrasa said all homeowners can benefit from universal design.
"You don't know what tomorrow will bring," she said. "You might need the features."
The bill will officially be introduced at the council's legislative meeting Sept. 4. A public hearing is scheduled for Sept. 18. Both meetings will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
Del. Guy Guzzone, a Columbia Democrat, sponsored the state enabling legislation for the tax credit that was passed in 2008.
The bill, Guzzone's first in the state legislature, authorizes all jurisdictions to create a tax credit for universal design, but no other counties have taken advantage of it.
"I think that's largely because when it got passed it was probably in the worst part of the recession," Guzzone said.
Even in Howard County, he said, officials decided it was not the best time to be thinking about tax credits.
"I'm hopeful that if it passes here we can start talking with other jurisdictions," Guzzone.
He touted the benefits of universal design features — allowing seniors to age in place, aiding persons with disabilities to live on their own, keeping persons out of nursing homes, etc.
"Universal design is important for lots of folks," Guzzone said. "It also will, over the course of time, increase the stock (of accessible housing)."
Highland resident and architect Karen Pitsley approached Guzzone with the idea because she said many other states have passed legislation to allow for universal design tax credits.
Pitsley, whose company, Transforming Architecture, conducts about 25 percent of its work for clients seeking features that create a more suitable living environment for aging in place, said renovations are often expensive and the tax credit would provide "a sense of relief" for many homeowners who need or want to make improvements.
"Sometimes people can't afford putting parents in an assisted living facility and a lot of times they don't want to," she said.
Pitsley said she is excited to have been a part of the push for the credit and that the first implementation could be in her home county.
"I like to think that Howard County is more open to aging in place and wants to keep the people here as diverse as possible," she said.