After years trying to devise ways of building affordable housing that's indistinguishable from surrounding higher-priced homes, Howard County officials are thinking of reversing the trend.
Forced by rising home prices and the complaints of builders that they can't build lower-priced units next to $600,000 townhouses, the county government is struggling to find new ways - or return to older ones - to provide moderate-income housing for middle-class workers.
"I grew up in a neighborhood in a two-bedroom Cape Cod and down the street was a mansion, and everybody was better for it," said Neil Gaffney, deputy county housing director.
High homeowner association fees and property taxes on new homes with high sales prices make things even tougher for middle-income buyers, so Howard officials are looking for other alternatives - such as building groups of moderately priced units together on a separate site, or mixing and matching home sizes and prices within a community.
County officials are talking to builders, housing advocates, planners and each other to try to develop some new policies that could be adopted later this year.
"Maybe we need economic diversity," Gaffney told the county's Housing and Community Development Board during a discussion last week.
Columbia, where groups of subsidized townhouses were built in Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice villages, is another example.
In Harper's Choice, board member Nancy Rhead pointed out, "even within neighborhoods, there are apartments, big houses, small houses," built in groups, but all in the same community.
Rhead worried that isolating too many similarly priced homes in one place could skew economic diversity in neighborhood schools, but Gaffney pointed out that Howard County is out of big parcels of development land, and future projects would be unlikely to produce that effect.
"It's all good housing. It may cost $250,000 instead of $500,000, but it's not bad housing. We're on a small enough scale in this county that it's not going to be a problem," predicted outgoing board chairman Robert L. Brownell.
"Howard Homes, that worked!" said board member Michael G. Reimer, referring to the ubiquitous brick townhouses built by the hundreds throughout Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s. The three- or four-bedroom, solidly built but plain houses typically sold slightly under market prices, and mostly young buyers camped out for weeks to get one.
New townhouses are typically aimed at upscale buyers and feature rapidly escalating prices.
Gaffney said builders and their attorneys met again Feb. 3 with county planning and housing officials to talk about options, and Brantley Development builder John Liparini offered some hope.
With other builders complaining that moderate-income units built to match vastly more expensive homes are too costly, Liparini said that they can be built and sold for $250,000, though including a few units in large upscale projects can be tough.
"You can't do 10 or 15 in the middle of a higher-priced neighborhood," he said. "If you put together a couple hundred of these," it would work better.