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Robey names affordable-housing panel


The Robey administration is taking one more stab at the complex problem of providing affordable housing at a time of sky-high home prices with a 25-member citizens task force named yesterday .

The group is to come up with creative suggestions by Nov. 1 -- one month before County Executive James N. Robey leaves office.

Robey said the failure to find ways of providing homes that low- and middle-income people can afford was his "greatest disappointment" after his first term in office and remains so today.

Prices for all ranges of housing have more than doubled since 2001, he said yesterday at a news conference, and only about 5 percent of the homes for sale in Howard are affordable for nearly half the county's households.

His efforts to raise salaries for police officers, firefighters, teachers and other county employees have not helped them find homes they can buy where they work, he acknowledged.

"The more they earned, the more housing costs increased," he said. Now, with the federal base-closing program due to bring thousands of new employees to Central Maryland, the impetus to do something is also greater, he said.

The task force is to meet next week, divide into two committees, and produce a report ready for the next county executive and council to examine after taking office in December.

"This takes it out of the political arena," Robey said after the conference in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. All four candidates for county executive have expressed strong support for the need for affordable housing.

Housing advocates pushed for a broad study of the county's housing problems and possible solutions during negotiations with Robey over their objections to a bill to change the moderate-income housing program approved by the County Council on June 5.

That bill would allow developers facing hardships fitting lower-priced homes in expensive new projects to move their required moderate-income units away from their prime building site.

That in turn aroused fears of that the county would slowly separate economically, while people earning low incomes are shunted out of Howard.

Robey said yesterday that he agreed "we've done bits and pieces" in studying housing problems, but more effort is needed. "It just wasn't getting done," he said. "We simply have not done enough. We haven't really addressed this issue head-on."

The county executive said local businesses need entry-level workers as well as highly paid ones, and forcing lower-paid people to commute from afar creates transportation problems.

"The only [county] highway workers who live here have been with us 30 years," and bought their homes when they sold for much less, Robey said.

The task force chairman is Kevin J. Kelehan, an attorney who has headed the county Housing Commission. There are to be two committees -- one focused on needs and goals, headed by Tim Sosinski, a Columbia architect, and the other focusing on resources and problems, headed by Earl Arminger, a developer heavily involved in building subsidized housing.

Lenneal J. Henderson, a political science professor and a senior fellow at the William Donald Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore, will be the committee's nonvoting consultant.

Others on the committee include representatives of the African American Coalition, the Interfaith Housing Coalition, and Enterprise Community Partners, the Rouse-created nonprofit that builds affordable housing nationally.

"We're going to do something special here in the county," Kelehan said.

William A. Ross Sr., a county Housing Commission member and advocate for low-income families also appointed to the committee, said he is optimistic that the task force will be productive.

Asked to comment by Robey, Henderson had a brief reply.

"Let's get to work," he said.

Housing dilemma

Nearly half the households in Howard County earn the county's median income of $82,065 or less. That income normally qualifyies a family for a mortgage up to $246,195.

Only 5 percent of homes in Howard cost less than $245,000.

In 2001, the median price of a single-family, detached home was $295,000. In 2005, it was more than $505,000.

In 2001, median price for a condominium was $89,000. In 2005, it was $232,000.

About 8,500 households have annual incomes of less than $36,400 and nearly 60 percent of that group pays more than half of their income for shelter.

[Source: Howard County Housing Department]

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