Two Howard councilmen believe that the county's needs for moderate income housing can answer residents' demands for community revitalization.
Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon and David A. Rakes hope to increase the amount and quality of housing in the county through a bill that would allow builders to refurbish older homes in place of constructing moderate income housing units in new developments.
There is a constant desire for more affordable housing within the county, where the average price paid for a single-family home is more than $300,000. Essential workers such as teachers and police officers often cannot afford to pay the housing costs.
At the same time, residents - particularly in Howard's older communities - say that deteriorating homes are dragging down property values and discouraging commitment within communities.
"In any community over time there has to be reinvestment," said Rakes, a Democrat who represents east Columbia and parts of Elkridge. However, "the county is not positioned to put that kind of money into reinvesting in the community."
When building on property zoned for manufactured housing, senior housing or mixed use, developers are required to set aside 5 percent to 20 percent of units as affordable housing, said Marsha McLaughlin, the county planning director.
The County Council sets the prices of moderate-income units each year, using a percentage of Howard's median household income, Merdon said.
The bill would allow a developer, builder or private citizen to renovate a house under specified standards in exchange for a moderate-income housing credit, pending inspection from the Department of Housing and Community Development.
That credit could be used to help fulfill the moderate-income housing requirement, Merdon said. Developers also could buy credits from others.
Only homes that are not already classified as moderate-income housing units could qualify, said Merdon, an Ellicott City-Elkridge Republican - thus increasing the number available in the county overall.
Merdon said he believes that a significant amount of housing would be eligible.
"I have been notified by several people in the community of houses that are just an eyesore," he said.
Sellers of older homes have a difficult time competing with newly built units for moderate-income families because the older homes often require repairs, Merdon said.
If the older homes continue to deteriorate, they become a blight on the community, said Barbara Hope of Ellicott City, chairwoman of the steering committee of the Interfaith Coalition on Affordable Housing, a Howard County group representing several faith communities.
"What happens when quality of life decreases is it affects everybody at every level," she said.
Although Howard's neighborhoods are not as bad as some of those in the urban communities of Baltimore or Washington, "we want to keep it from getting down there," Hope added.
Refurbishing existing housing in the eastern part of the county puts the people closer to jobs, transportation and other services that are not as readily available in the rural west, Hope said.
The county also reaps a tax benefit. "There is a loss of tax dollars" when builders construct lower-priced properties, Merdon said.
The original requirement to set aside a portion as moderate-income units ensured some economic diversity in newer communities.
After meeting with advocates for affordable housing, Merdon said he plans to submit an amendment to the bill that would cap the amount of renovated property credit at 20 percent.
"We don't really want to create pockets of poverty," he said.
The legislation also requires providing new homeowners with equipment needed to maintain their homes, including lawn mowers, edge trimmers and a gallon of paint in every color used.
Developers and builders could potentially spend less to renovate existing homes than they would lose dedicating a lot in a new development, said developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr.
"The more I talk about it the more excited I get," he said. "I think that's the incentive that's going to make it successful," Merdon said. "I think it's going to become a model," he added later.
Merdon said some sections of Columbia, Ellicott City and Elkridge could use the revitalization.
Reuwer agreed, saying that some were more than 30 years old.
"Kitchens are functionally obsolete, ... roofs are bad, ... plumbing is bad," he said. But someone buying the house probably could not also borrow the money needed to fix it up.
Those who sign on to the program earlier will pay less for the houses and make more, Reuwer added.
"Sooner or later, every house under a certain value will have 10 developers chasing it," he said.