Housing board balks at request


A new law allowing Howard County builders to renovate older homes to fulfill their moderate-income housing obligations won't take effect until next month, but county housing board members are resisting the measure's first proposed use.

Four members refused at a Housing and Community Development Board meeting late last week to endorse a developer's request to change his plan to build four affordable units and allow him instead to renovate older ones to satisfy the legal requirement after the new law takes effect.

Howard officials refused to identify the project or the developer, saying only that it is a rental townhouse project for seniors along Route 108.

Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, explained that the board could make a counteroffer - perhaps getting two renovated condominium apartments in exchange for each of the four new rental townhouses the builder would otherwise construct as moderate-income units, but he could not win over the skeptics at the meeting Thursday night.

Some of the doubts were about the concept, though some centered on the vague nature of this particular request.

Several board members said they would like to see exactly where the renovated units would be, who is living in them now and what the financial bottom line would be.

Although board member Michael G. Riemer said using the new law would be "helping us get rid of structures" that have deteriorated and may be a blight on the community, board member Nancy Rhead said: "It is not new affordable housing. I'm concerned about it. It's not a new place - somebody was already in it" who might be displaced, creating a new problem, she said.

"No, thank you," she added.

Board members Deborah Tolson, Eleanor G. Gyr and Jennifer Beskid also had doubts.

"Why forgo the requirement [for new homes]? I'd rather have four units in the [new] development," Tolson said, questioning why a developer concerned with profits would want to help the county.

Vaughan argued that the board could use a provision of the new law requiring two renovated condominiums for each new house not built.

"If there's an opportunity for us to improve our position, should we not explore that opportunity?" Vaughan asked.

And Riemer said, "There are some advantages to this."

But Beskid replied that "we may be displacing people just to get more numbers [of units]."

"I never liked it [the new law] from the beginning. At this point, I'm not interested," Rhead said.

But Beskid and others said they would be willing to listen to a specific plan - one that identified the run-down units to be renovated and what the exact costs would be.

"I'm not opposed to hearing a plan," Beskid said. "We've yet to see an example," Rhead said.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the board should not try to resist the law.

"I think they have to follow the will of the council. The board has to comply," he said.

In other action, the board debated the possible conversion of the county's housing agency into a part-public and part-private enterprise, similar to the Economic Development Authority and to Anne Arundel County's housing agency.

Vaughan said the idea is part of a far-ranging discussion of where the agency should be going in the long term.

He told board members that such a change would provide a "greater flexibility" in making housing deals because, like the county's existing Housing Commission, which administers rental subsidy and public housing programs, the agency would be more independent.

"Now we have to get County Council approval" for each deal, Vaughn said, often a time-consuming, cumbersome requirement.

As a public-private agency, the department could act more quickly and the county would not be financially liable.

No vote was taken on the idea.

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