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Struggling to produce affordable housing


Affordable-housing advocates and builders veered off in two directions this week as a committee created by Howard County officials struggled to craft a strategy to provide more homes for middle-class people.

Builders in the group discussed the technicalities of building homes for familes with incomes up to $106,000, while faith-based housing advocates warned that the greater need is to serve working families with incomes below $75,000.

"We are going to become a very exclusive county unless we take action," said Bob Buckneier, one of three members of the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing participating in the committee's work.

Currently, developers are required to provide free finished lots for moderate-income units in some zones in exchange for permission to build more full-priced units. But they have complained that it is impractical to try to fit identical-looking, subsidized homes amid those selling for $600,000 or more. They want permission to build a variety of units on different sites, or pay the county in cash instead.

The committee, organized by Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, and county housing officials, is working to produce a County Council bill to change the moderate-income housing law this fall. That task is becoming increasingly difficult as county home prices soar.

"We are clearly working around the edges of a huge problem," McLaughlin said.

But housing advocates warned about the dangers of doing nothing.

Only 40 percent of current residents could afford to buy their homes at today's prices, he said.

"Housing costs in Howard County are pushing the cost of citizenship to levels affordable only by the extremely wealthy," the group said in a prepared statement distributed to committee members. Buckneier pointed to 2003 census figures showing that 39 percent of the county's income goes to people earning less than $75,000 a year, while only 9.6 percent of homes are worth $150,000 or less. In contrast, 39 percent of income goes to people who earn more than $106,000 a year, while 47 percent of the county's homes are worth more than $300,000.

That means homebuyers must be wealthier than many families who live in the county. The coalition responded by calling for more moderate-income homes instead of a plan to create a new higher-priced category of middle-income subsidized homes for two-income families. At a meeting Aug. 3, county housing officials suggested allowing developers to build half the required number of moderate-income homes by substituting the new middle-income units for families earning up to $106,000 a year. That would define a moderate-income family as four people with an income of up to $74,350 a year.

At a meeting Tuesday in the George Howard Building, housing advocates rejected the middle-income concept, and they proposed adding a requirement for builders to reserve 15 percent of every development's homes for moderate-income people in every residential zone where the units are not now required.

"We reject any legislation that fosters the movement of housing toward higher incomes. We claim the need is radically in the opposite direction," the group said in a prepared statement.

Charles O'Donovan, a vice president of Greenebaum and Rose Associates, developers of Maple Lawn, Maryland, rejected the coalition's proposal, calling it a "very slippery slope" and "social engineering" that would involve taking value from rural land by using it for lower-price homes, forcing full-price units onto the remaining land, which would make them even more expensive.

Taxes and homeowner fees would still be so high as to make the idea impractical, he said. Later, O'Donovan mentioned that townhouse prices at Maple Lawn start at $650,000, and single-family, detached homes sell for more than $1 million.

McLaughlin said that the only residential zones in Howard that do not require some moderate-income houses are reserved for single-family, detached units, and with those homes selling for up to $800,000, it would not be practical to build moderate- or middle-income units in those areas.

"Affordable will be townhouses and apartments," she said. Besides, allowing developers to build more homes in those areas in exchange for a few lower-priced units would create neighborhood battles and political problems.

"I'm not dismissing your goal. I don't know how to get to your goal," she told the coalition members.

Developer Paul Revelle again reminded the group that people paying full price for expensive homes in Howard County often do not want subsidized homes in their communities - even for moderate-income buyers. The new middle-income category would fit more easily and cause less resistance, he said.

Builder John Liparini presented a complex plan that would reduce the sizes and locations of different housing types to a cash value and use those values to determine what the county would get in exchange for allowing greater housing density.

But McLaughlin had trouble with that concept, too, because it would mean figuring out a new rate of exchange for each development.

"I need something simple," she said. "Yours just seems incredibly complicated."

McLaughlin said she wants to take a bill to the County Council that incorporates a simple formula of more lower-price homes in exchange for the right to build more full-price homes. Another meeting has been scheduled next month.

"It's getting so complicated [that] I'm not sure I'm ready to go forward with it," McLaughlin said as the meeting ended. "We'll chew on it internally."

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