Ryland's ex-CEO leads effort to build affordable housing


A dream that Columbia developer James Rouse had mor than two decades ago, to provide housing in his new town for both the janitor and the corporate executive, has faded in recent years as the price of homes has soared.

But the dream isn't dead. It now engages the energies of Charles E. "Ted" Peck, a tough-minded executive who directed the Ryland Group's rise into a corporate giant that generated more than a billion dollars a year.

The 65-year-old Mr. Peck, who retired last year as chairman and chief executive officer of the Columbia home-building and mortgage-financing firm, is leading an effort to build more-affordable housing in one of the nation's most affluent counties.

"I want Howard County to be open socially, with a broad range of people, rather than becoming an elitist community, said Mr. Peck, who is chairman of a housing initiative launched by the Columbia Voyage, a citizens group setting goals for the town's future.

"I think we will find that it is not too late to provide housing opportunities for people to both live and work in Howard County," said Mr. Peck, acknowledging that Mr. Rouse's vision motivated him to take a leading role in the effort.

With new homes on quarter-acre lots selling for an average of $225,436 last year and new town houses going for about $150,492, many people are priced out of the Columbia market, even though older homes are available for less.

Mr. Peck said his committee hopes to come up with ideas for generating affordable housing, such as allowing developers to build a greater density if some of the homes are priced low and changing regulations to cut the time and expense of processing housing plans.

"There is the potential that if we make adjustments in the regulations, the market can respond to meet a percentage of the need," said Mr. Peck.

"I am told that 989 families are currently living in substandard homes in the county, and one goal might be to work to eliminate it to zero in five years," he said. "But first we need to get the $$ facts about who needs affordable housing. Is it single-parent families, the elderly or who, and what will it take to meet those needs?"

The linchpin of that effort will be a $15,000 study due in May from David G. Cramer of Mr. Rouse's Enterprise Foundation, who plans to take "a comprehensive look at the housing needs of Howard County and develop strategies to deal with those needs."

"There clearly is a big, current need and it will increase in the future, but it can be addressed with the right type of financing and zoning," said Mr. Cramer, noting that a recent study found 2,900 local families in need of affordable housing.

In recent years, the county has taken a series of steps, several in partnership with developers, to expand rental housing for low- and moderate-income people. But most agree that the several hundred extra units produced by those efforts will not meet the need.

Pressing for affordable housing has proved particularly frustrating for civic activist May Ruth Seidel, a member of the Howard County Housing Alliance who serves on Mr. Peck's committee.

"I worked on this issue for a long time, spending seven years of the county's housing and community development board," said Ms. Seidel. "I felt frustrated and left the board because not much happened, in part because the community was not excited about it." But Ms. Seidel said she senses a new interest in ZTC affordable housing that could give momentum to efforts by Mr. Peck and others. "I now hear over and over from parents, who moved here in the past 20 years, that their kids are now grown up and have completed college but cannot afford to live here," Ms. Seidel said.

Besides that, she said, working women who are single parents are turning up in greater numbers on waiting lists for subsidized housing. "It might change the image of the type of people who would be living in these units," she said, adding that "the unfortunate stereotype of welfare families did not play well."

Ms. Seidel believes that Mr. Peck's involvement could make a critical difference in getting the community behind a comprehensive approach to affordable housing. "He is wise, and knows how to get things done," she said.

Padraic Kennedy, the president of the Columbia Association, agreed.

"It is so good he is involved in the affordable housing initiative. He knows the whole process of financing and home building. He gets things done."

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