A bill to authorize property tax credit for homeowners installing certain universal design features within their homes received universal support from testifiers at a County Council hearing on Sept. 18.
Universal design features, such as access ramps, widened doorways, grab bars in bathrooms and stair glides or elevators, are aimed at making homes more accessible.
County Council member Jen Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, introduced the bill, which is cosponsored by Columbia Democrat Calvin Ball, to help households that would like to provide more accommodations for seniors or individuals with disabilities.
All six people who testified on the bill supported the proposal.
"Accessible housing is a critical need for the people that we support and is in great demand in Howard County," said Dorothy Plantz, board member of the Arc of Howard County, a nonprofit that provides services for persons with disabilities. "The Arc believes that making accessible changes ... creates an environment where people can stay in their own homes or neighborhoods (and allows people to) increase and maintain independence."
Columbia resident Rusty Toler said be believes the council passing this tax credit "will continue Howard County's well-earned designation as a forward-acting county."
Toler recalled a case from his time as managing a study for the Opting for Independence pilot program the county started in December 2010 to link seniors with services they need to age in place. In the case study, a man reported wanting to install a wheel chair lift for his wife in their home so she would no longer have to crawl up the stairs at night, but she discouraged him because of the $5,000 cost.
Michael Harrison, director of government affairs for the Home Builders Association of Maryland, said the bill could be good for business.
"I don't think this will lead to a flood of calls into remodelers' offices," he said, but noted it could provide incentive for people on the fence about whether or not to install universal design features.
The tax credit only applies to features installed in existing residences. 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 Finance, with any coming in after the annual cap has been reached being deferred until the next fiscal year.
Though he supports the legislation, Columbia resident and chairman of the Columbia Association's Senior Advisory Committee Paul Verchinski had a few suggestions on improvements that could be made to the bill.
His ideas include increasing the annual cap to $200,000, adding retrofits for the hearing and vision impaired to the bill's list of acceptable universal design features and limiting the credit to homes that are at least five years old to ensure improvements are made to the existing housing stock.
"Aging-in-place specialists have noted that these types of retrofits need to be done before there is a health crisis," Verchinski said.
Howard County Citizens Association president Cathy Hudson applauded the tax credit, but suggested that the county building code also include some requirements for universal design features in new homes.
"It's cheaper to do it in the beginning than to have to retrofit," she said.
Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, asked a few of the speakers about their thoughts on whether the tax credit should be limited to residents within a certain income range, given the annual cap.
"I want to make sure we're really thinking that through because there are people with great means that could take advantage of it and really take it out of the hands of people with lesser means," she said.