On housing, council sent a terrible message


YOU WILL have to excuse my sensitiveness about the Howard County Council's decision to weaken the county's fair housing laws. The premise behind this move to allow landlords to limit the number of tenants with government housing subsidies is a slap at poor people, in particular those who have lived in public housing.

Proponents of the law change don't want the few apartment complexes in Howard County that are affordable to the poor to become "projects." Their desire to avoid concentrations of poor people -- another migrating urban problem -- is understandable.

But there ought to be ways to do that short of letting landlords put a quota on tenants with government vouchers.

Too many poor people

I don't like the notion that too many poor tenants drives down the value of a housing development. There are people of bad character, with loose morals and sloven habits, in all economic classes. If they earn enough money, they may pay someone to keep the house tidy and the lawn pristine. If the poor don't do it for themselves, it doesn't get done.

When that happens, do you say an unkempt home is typical of all poor people? That's what placing a quota on poor tenants suggests; that if you put too many of them together, the property will become an undesirable haven for criminals and deadbeats.

Such thinking ignores the fact that many families with housing vouchers come to Howard County to get away from criminals and deadbeats. They don't want to establish a colony here.

It's true that a poor family may not be able to afford all the flourishes and touches that add to a property's attractiveness. But their poverty doesn't prevent them from keeping a house clean and a yard tidy. It doesn't keep them from being intolerant of drug abusers and other criminals.

And just because a tenant came with a housing voucher doesn't mean a landlord can't evict him if his behavior truly is bringing down property values.

Landlords aren't wrong to want a mixture of income levels in their developments. But rather than giving landlords an instrument that could further diminish the available housing for the poor in Howard County, the council should have taken another route.

It should have considered what additional tax breaks and other incentives it might offer to both landlords and developers of single-family housing to include more units that are affordable to the poor in their developments.

Howard County sends a terrible message when it does too little to expand affordable housing options and then lets landlords limit the number of poor people with housing vouchers that they will accept. The message is if you're poor, don't come to Howard County because there may not be a place for you to stay.

The county should disperse the poor by giving them more locations to consider when they're looking for an affordable home.

The council did pass a law last year designed to spur developers to build moderately priced houses. But developers are easily circumventing the law by building fewer units so as not to trigger the rule that would require them to include less expensive houses in their subdivisions.

The Rouse Co. says it will abide by the law even though it will not build enough homes in its planned community near Fulton for the new law to kick in. But the generosity of the Rouse Co. will amount to only 71 units of affordable housing out of the 1,200 to be built.

The Census Bureau says 4 percent of the housing in Howard County is affordable to the poor (rents not exceeding $500 a month, houses costing no more than $50,000). You have to wonder what would happen if developers knew that any reduction in profits they might suffer by building more affordable housing would be offset by tax breaks.

Steps need to be taken to increase the available housing for low-income families. That won't happen by giving landlords the ability to dramatically reduce the number of poor people to whom they are willing to give a lease.

Allowing housing-voucher quotas says to poor families that they're not as good as other people. It says their numbers must be controlled, or they will turn nice apartment buildings into a "project," turn nice houses into a slum. That doesn't have to happen.

Good and bad people

I know a little something about people from the "projects." I didn't just grow up in public housing, I lived in the "projects" from infancy until two years after I graduated from college. I saw a lot of bad things and bad people in the "projects." But I also saw a lot of good things and good people.

I know there are honest, hard-working, tidy people among those with government vouchers looking for a home in Howard County. They shouldn't be turned away simply because -- through no fault of their own -- the sparse number of affordable places to live leads to their concentration in a few neighborhoods.

Instead of placing additional limitations on poor families, the county should work to expand their opportunities to find affordable housing.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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