Encouraging affordable housing


When a new town house in Howard County sells for as much as $250,000, the words "affordable housing" don't come easily to mind.

But that is the reality in Howard, a reality that is pricing out of the housing market people with moderate incomes: teachers, police, firefighters. Of greater concern to many county residents, the high price of Howard housing makes it impossible for children raised in the county to find something to buy once they are grown and on their own. Even a new condominium can sell for as much as $110,000.

To their credit, County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Councilman Vernon Gray are taking steps that could bring some affordability.

Under legislation they filed recently, a developer with a project of 10 units or more would be required to set aside 10 percent of that project for more moderately priced homes. If they couldn't, or refused, the developer would have to contribute to a fund to create an equal number of moderate-priced units elsewhere.

County officials have borrowed a page from their sister boom county to the south: Montgomery County has had a similar law on the books for close to 20 years. Its officials estimate that 2,500 affordable units are created by the law each year.

Howard officials are not expecting such success. They estimate that no more than 150 affordable units will be created annually here. Success would mean that families with annual incomes of up to $45,000 could find housing for between $70,000 and $90,000, a major improvement over what they would find today.

However, opposition to the plan is likely, especially from the no-growth crowd, because it would require higher densities in some areas as an incentive for developers.

A project with affordable housing would stand its best chance in the already crowded eastern part of the county -- a situation likely to refuel old arguments about fairness.

The mostly rural, western part of Howard County would avoid bearing its fair share because high land prices make affordable housing projects there all but impossible.

County residents have a lot to grapple with as the debate over affordable housing unfolds. It will be important not to lose sight of the central issue: how much residents are willing to sacrifice in exchange for making housing in Howard more affordable for others.

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