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Groups press housing issue


A coalition of three Howard County groups is trying to revive public discussion of a once touchy but now rarely mentioned topic -- low-income housing.

"There is this lower [income] category we don't talk about," said Sherman Howell, who this week raised the issue to three Howard County council members -- two of whom are running for county executive this year.

With home prices in Howard up more than 77 percent in four years, public discussion has shifted from low-income housing to units for people in the $34,000 to $90,000 income range. County officials see opportunities to provide below-market housing in the redevelopment of central Columbia and along the U.S. 1 corridor. Those making less are rarely mentioned, though county employers complain they have trouble finding workers for low-paying, entry level jobs.

Advocates hope to put low-income housing back on the public agenda.

Howell is vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County, which has joined with the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for 150 social services organizations, and Columbia Housing Corp., which operates 300 units of low-income housing in Columbia, to put housing for people who make less than $34,000 a year back on the table.

"There has to be a raised consciousness about the need," said William A. Ross Jr., a longtime housing advocate and county housing commission member who, like Howell and about 75 other people, attended an ACS-sponsored luncheon discussion of housing, transportation and crisis intervention issues Wednesday at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills.

Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat and candidate for executive, told the group that because Columbia founder James W. Rouse was so committed to building a town for people of all income levels when construction began in the late 1960's, "new-town zoning has no requirement to do affordable housing. It never was an issue."

Ulman said he opposes rewriting county housing regulations to substitute "middle-income" units for families making between $60,000 and $90,000 for "moderate-income" units serving families with incomes below $60,000. But he didn't directly address Howell's question about low-income people.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican also running for executive, said the county needs to set a numerical goal of how much affordable housing is ideal, and then change zoning to help achieve that.

Currently, he said, "we're just changing zoning regulations and hope" they will produce more lower-priced homes. Councilmen Guy Guzzone and David A. Rakes, both Democrats, did not attend.

Western county Republican Charles C. Feaga, the third council member at the luncheon, said the sharp escalation of land values and housing prices "makes affordable housing almost impossible" to build or even define.

"Affordable housing hasn't worked real well," he said. "There's not one person in this room who can describe what affordable housing is."

Feaga said that lower-priced housing is virtually impossible to build in his part of the county because without public water and sewer lines, buildings can't be grouped close together. He advocated "moving that [water-sewer service] line a little bit" to help achieve higher housing densities.

In raising his question, Howell said his adult daughter lives in an upscale apartment building in Manhattan, New York City, but "rides down in the elevator each morning" with lower-income people who also live in the building.

"How do they do it in New York and around Wall Street and we can't do it here?" he asked.

Feaga replied that part of the reason may be the "Not in My Backyard" syndrome, in which buyers of expensive homes oppose having lower-income people near them.

Merdon said he won't accept zoning changes for Columbia without "a substantial" amount of "affordable housing."

Ulman added that Columbia's Town Center "can be a truly special place," with good planning, but none of the councilmen specifically addressed low-income housing.

Carol MacPhee, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp., said the three groups will continue to press the issue, however.

"I think it's our best way to keep it in the forefront," she said.

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