New status set for office


In a move to add prestige and visibility to housing issues, Howard County is preparing to transform its housing office into a full-fledged department.

A bill to make the change is set for introduction Dec. 3 in the County Council, with four members as sponsors. The measure has the support of County Executive James N. Robey. A public hearing is scheduled Dec. 17, and a vote would come Jan. 7.

"Since we've been focusing a lot on community development, I thought it critical that we give visibility to this department. It's a signal to citizens," said east Columbia Democrat C. Vernon Gray, the measure's chief proponent.

Robey, who in July gave himself a grade of B-minus on housing issues, said: "We've talked a lot about housing issues in the county. This is the first step in doing a better job."

Howard County is following the example of other large Maryland counties such as Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's, which have full-fledged housing departments, said Robey, adding that he hopes to come up with initiatives to promote moderately priced housing next year.

Although the Robey administration has supported affordable-housing programs, the county hasn't boosted the use of local revenue or added new major housing programs. And land-use policies that keep public utilities out of the western county have driven prices up for increasingly scarce developable lots in the eastern county.

Boasting Maryland's highest median household income at $77,000, Howard County has seen housing prices move sharply higher in recent years, while retail businesses are starving for workers - many of whom can't afford to live in the county. With luxury townhouse prices creeping toward $300,000, police, firefighters and teachers often face affordability problems, too.

At the same time, county officials are moving to stress preservation of older neighborhoods and renewal of the oldest commercial strips along U.S. 1 and U.S. 40.

"If it's something to allow housing to be more effective, efficient and visible, it's a very good step. Affordable housing is an issue for the work force in Howard County," said Ken Williams, president and chief executive officer of the local Chamber of Commerce.

Not everyone praises the move.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who served as Howard county executive in the late 1980s, said: "I don't think it [the change] would matter much. It all depends on how high you move it up on your priority list."

In practical terms, the bill would change little.

Instead of county housing administrator Leonard S. Vaughan reporting to Chief Administrative Officer Raquel Sanudo, he would report directly to the county executive - and he might get a pay raise. But there is no plan for more local money, workers or projects because of the change, officials said.

It puts an emphasis on what we're trying to do in housing and affordable housing," said Neil J. Gaffney, deputy housing administrator. Reporting to the executive "gives us a little different clout," he said.

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