When some developers are less than thrilled by Howard County's rules for dispersing affordable housing in new housing, Kelly Cimino delivers her trademark response: "Wouldn't it be great if the teachers who work at the schools you use to market your project could live in the county?"
This Howard County native is the new director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development, where Cimino aims to expand affordable housing opportunities in a county she says is "already ahead of the curve."
"In this county, we don't say, 'Should there be affordable housing.' We ask, 'How should there be affordable housing?' That's not common in other jurisdictions," Cimino said.
After years of grappling with how to meld affordable housing as downtown Columbia develops into what planners envision will be the county's economic and cultural heart, two competing proposals before the Howard County Council lay out varying visions on how to tackle the thorny issue of affordable housing.
The housing department has made recent strides, doubling home ownership over the last eight years, awarding affordable housing renting and ownership opportunities to those in need and expanding education opportunities to new homebuyers and others seeking financial literacy.
But in an affluent county with a median income of $107,490 per household, the county's homeownership programs do not reach those earning below $40,000 a year, Cimino said.
In a database that tracks those waiting for new affordable housing opportunities through the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit program, a zoning program that requires developers in certain zones to set aside affordable housing in new developments, nearly one-third of households earn less than $40,000 a year.
"The cost of the homes just isn't attainable today," Cimino said. "That doesn't mean we won't come up with a way to potentially address that, but right now, the numbers just don't work."
The average price for a townhouse in the county is $400,000, Cimino said.
The county's MIHU requires developers to set aside generally 10 to 15 percent of new housing units as affordable housing, according to the county's website.
Cimino said developers often indicate they "can't make the numbers work" to meet MIHU requirements because of the high costs of land and construction. The department recognizes the market and seeks balance, she said.
"We want to encourage development but we also want them to be socially responsible and help us solve the affordable housing problem," she said.
In some cases, the department does not require builders to pay a portion of closing costs or finish basements, Cimino said. The county's Settlement Down Payment Loan program aims to help homebuyers with financing settlement and down payment costs.
For single family detached units in some areas, developers can pay a fee-in-lieu of affordable units. The fee goes into a fund administered by the housing department to finance other affordable housing opportunities.
Still, the department awards new housing opportunities daily, Cimino said. On average, 700 households are in the database awaiting housing opportunities through the MIHU program.
After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in business administration, Cimino joined the county in 2008 and oversaw homeownership programs in 2012. She attended Clarksville Middle School and Atholton High School and worked in the mortgage lending industry for 23 years.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman appointed Cimino, who has worked with the department for eight years, as director after the Howard County Council passed his legislation to sever the county's public housing authority, the Howard County Housing Commission, from the housing department.
A task force recommended the split last year because overlaps in staffing and a unified public face led to what the task force called an inefficient staffing system; conflict of interest with loans and grants; and confusion from the public, which often believes the commission acts on behalf of county government.
Tom Carbo, who previously headed both departments, is now leading the housing commission. Both entities will partner on projects like the redevelopment of downtown Columbia.
With the focus on new development — notably downtown Columbia — Cimino hopes to see older communities "become vibrant again."
The Ellicott City resident aims to expand homeownership in older communities like Columbia's aging villages as the county explores ways to revitalize the area's village centers.
"It's important that we find ways to support the redevelopment of the village centers by coming up with a way to support home ownership in village centers," Cimino said.
She looks forward to expanding the county's housing education programs as demand for financial education grows and the population of families whose first language is not English grows. Between 50 and 60 people attend the department's homebuyers workshop, she said.
"Even if we can't offer homeownership to everybody, we can get them on the path of saving money, improving credit and renting before they can buy," Cimino said.
Cimino said affordable housing is critical for strong communities — a principle she said guides her work.
"The misconception is affordable housing is for people who are receiving a subsidy or people who are not working or people who don't deserve to live here," she said. "That's not true. These are working people, these are people who want to work here and contribute to our community."