Howard Co. housing director faces range of challenges in a tough economic climate

The Hilltop public housing complex along Mt. Ida Drive is being torn down and rebuilt to include a mix of low-income renters and market-rate renters. This is one of several projects that the new Howard County housing director Tom Carbo is overseeing.
The Hilltop public housing complex along Mt. Ida Drive is being torn down and rebuilt to include a mix of low-income renters and market-rate renters. This is one of several projects that the new Howard County housing director Tom Carbo is overseeing. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis)

Howard County housing director Tom Carbo can tick off plenty of reasons to live in Howard County — good schools, safe neighborhoods, relatively easy commutes to Baltimore and Washington. But when the time came for him to purchase a home for his family, even he felt priced out.

He and his wife had been looking at a Ryland Home in Howard County in 1996 when they sold their first house in the Baltimore City neighborhood of Edmondson Village. But they found the same model in Carroll County for significantly less, and the family wound up moving to Westminster.

Sixteen years later, Carbo says, Howard continues to struggle with affordability as officials seek to provide opportunities for people to work and live in the county. It's a particular problem for middle-class families, many of whom are not eligible for some government help offsetting the high cost of housing in a county where the median household income is more than $100,000.

"We wanted a bigger home — the American dream," Carbo said of the move to his second home. That aspiration is one the department hopes to help more residents to attain in Howard.

Carbo has worked for the county as a solicitor, hearing examiner and deputy housing director. He took the county's top housing job in February, following Stacy Spann's departure for a job in Montgomery County, and now faces the challenge of helping people of all income levels afford homes at a time when federal, state and local funding is drying up.

Attracting residents of all income levels to Howard, he said, means a more sustainable community, with less traffic congestion because fewer workers will be forced to commute from outside the county, as well as making Howard more attractive for businesses to set up shop where their employees can afford to live.

The county provides some buying and renting opportunities through its Moderate Income Housing Unit program, a zoning policy that requires developers to offer 10 percent to 15 percent of their new development at a lesser rate.

But Carbo acknowledges that the program doesn't help residents who make under the $60,000 threshold, or rental opportunities for those who make $40,000 or less.

"We recognize that is a very large problem. That is a segment that we have had difficulty finding ways to reach because of the deeper subsidy that they require," Carbo said.

"We are looking at ways to reach a little bit lower incomes," such as changing the MIHU program to provide fewer units but for lower income range, he said.

But some critics say some relief for lower income is needed now.

"We're setting ourselves up for people to be at a chronic risk for homelessness," said Jane O'Leary, executive director for the nonprofit Bridges for Housing Stability. She spoke recently to a group from the county's school health council, which met to discuss the increase in the number of homeless students.

O'Leary said recent increases of family homelessness are a direct result of those who are "precariously housed," or those barely making enough to get by. That number has been increased because of high rents and foreclosures. She said its not uncommon for residents to spend 50 percent to 60 percent of their income on housing.

"When something disrupts that fragile balance," such as a major car repair, that family can fall behind on payments, potentially left without a home.

She said she'd like to see more opportunities for those who are stuck in the county's shelters, Grassroots and Bridges, who have jobs but are unable to make enough to afford to be self-sufficient.

Sherman Howell, vice president of the African-American Coalition of Howard County, who has been vocal on housing issues, said he too is concerned that the county does not provide enough rental and buying opportunities.

"They have to have a program for those who fall below $60,000. Otherwise, you're not effectively using county services," he said, adding that the coalition often receives calls from residents trying to find programs that might be available to them.

Tim Sosinski, a member of the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, agreed the county should be addressing lower income levels, not just residents who have moderate incomes.

"Howard is a county with significant wealth, but what people don't realize is there are homeless," and others with minimum-wage jobs, "and then there's this gap between 30 and 60 percent where there is no vehicle to serve this population" of young professionals or service workers, he said.

He said the MIHU program reaches just a sliver of the market and only a handful of interested home buyers meet those narrow income requirements.

Carbo said the county is anticipating 35 new affordable housing units on the market next year with developments along U.S. 1 nearing completion. The county has 120 days to turn them over to qualified buyers, but if the agency can't fill the units by then, the developer can then sell the units for the higher price.

He said he would like to the MIHU program expanded to other areas of the county — such as Columbia, or other single-family districts.

He added, "we're trying to do all of these things without spending money."

The weakened economy has made it increasingly difficult for many homeowners to hold onto their homes and others to purchase homes, all while federal and state funds have dried up. For instance, five years ago, Carbo said, the department had $4 million from transfer taxes, while last year's budget was less than $2.5 million, which he said barely pays the department's salaries.

He said one of the most important projects for the department is providing closing help to moderate-income buyers, which is an added incentive for MIHU buyers. He said they are hoping to get $1 million next year, up from $500,000 last year.

"We have some of the highest settlement costs in the country," he said.

But, he added, the possible teacher pension shift looms over the county, which could mean fewer county resources. "That program is in jeopardy if the [teacher] pension shift happens." If that happens, Carbo said, his department would likely have to cut programs and lay off staff.

As the county has worked to improve the quality of life for those renters who are at lower income levels, the department is also redeveloping two public housing complexes with federal funds: the newly coined Monarch Mills, formerly known as Guilford Gardens in Columbia, and Hilltop Housing in Ellicott City will accommodate subsidized renters, but also market-rate renters, which the county anticipates will help make the developments more financially sustainable long term.

"We could very quickly go out and build low-income units, but what is the quality of those units, the quality of life, the sustainability?" Carbo said. "That's sort of been the problem of affordable housing."

While some might question how successful the project will be — why would people pay more than their neighbors when the units are identical? — Carbo said the climate and the location make the units attractive for prospective buyers.

At Monarch Mills, which has recently been advertised on banners at The Mall in Columbia, 82 percent of market-rate and low-income units have been leased, he said.

"We think it is a good model to use in the county," he said.

Another project the county has recently completed is homes at Greenwood, which use green and universal design, meaning it can be used by those who are disabled, and went to eligible low-income families.

As the county works to make housing opportunities for potential buyers and renters, Carbo said, another challenge the department is confronted with is dropping homes values. He said his office was approached by the Howard County Association of Realtors over the concerns of the increasing number of properties in foreclosure.

A program he said the department would like to implement is buying up foreclosure properties and reselling them to moderate-income buyers, but he's not sure there will be enough funding.

He's also concerned about more and more apartment complexes that are moderately priced until they are sold to a different owner and renovated, with rents raised substantially. He mentioned one apartment building on U.S. 40, where rents had jumped several hundred dollars after it was renovated.

But despite all the difficulties, Carbo said he's up for the challenge.

"This is the most exciting job I've ever had," he said. "What's great is when you get to see the fruits of your labor. You get to see the faces of the people who buy that house."