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Examining housing policy

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's new housing director plans to reverse a policy that promotes concentrations of affordable housing in one building or development, rather than sprinkled among other homes and apartments.

"I don't think we're supporting concentrations of low-income units," Stacy L. Spann, the director, told a crowd of more than 100 people at a luncheon speech sponsored by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for about 150 local human services organizations.

County policy, he said at the Wednesday event, requires that subsidized homes for moderate-income families should be spread throughout the county. "We intend to follow the law," though he said "it's a lot harder done than said."

Spann, who took over the department Jan. 15, told impatient housing advocates at the meeting that he does not yet have detailed answers to thorny housing problems.

That statement did not please William Ross, a county Housing Commission member, or Tim Sosinski, an architect and former co-chairman of a citizen housing task force that produced a detailed list of recommendations in November.

"We're looking for some kind of reactions from you to that report," Ross told Spann during the lunchtime session at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills.

Sosinski was even more blunt after the meeting. "I'm on the edge of disappointed. The level of movement is not impressive," he said. "We're not going to solve this overnight, but the question is, when are we at least going to start?"

The scarcity of housing for people making less than $60,000 a year -- including government employees -- is a national problem, greatly exacerbated over the last six years as home prices soared to an average of more than $450,000 in Howard County, while apartment rents also rose.

Howard County has Maryland's lowest unemployment rate, and business owners complain that they can't find enough employees for entry-level jobs, while county teachers, police officers and other civil servants look for affordable homes in ever more distant locations. Spann and County Executive Ken Ulman have said they are committed to keeping Howard a county where people of all income levels can afford to live, despite that trend.

Complicating the situation is a slow decline of federal funding for Section 8 rental subsidies, to the point that the county no longer accepts new applicants for vouchers. Spann said those still on the list are facing an average five-year wait for help.

Andrea Ingram, director of the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center that runs the county's homeless shelter, told him that the talk about affordable housing for working people has left low-income folks out of the discussion.

"Sometimes I feel like we're giving up on that," she said. "I think we have to get back to not giving up on the lowest of the low."

After the meeting, Spann said he wants to reverse the policy that allows builders to concentrate subsidized units in one apartment building or development -- a concept begun as an answer to soaring housing costs. The policy has sparked angry opposition to several projects from some county residents.

The County Council approved a law last year allowing builders who are required to include moderate-income homes in their developments to construct the units all together at a separate location. The law has led to proposals for apartments in which all the units are subsidized -- designed for people with incomes from about $35,000 to $54,000 a year. The change was supported by builders who complained that putting a $250,000 house among $800,000 units wouldn't work, mainly because moderate-income buyers cannot afford community association fees of up to $600 a month charged for amenities. Instead, they said they would build more subsidized units on other sites.

Several of those proposals -- including the 59-unit Centennial Gardens on Frederick Road in western Ellicott City that has since been killed -- drew strong opposition from residents who said they did not want subsidized homes near them and complained about the size of the buildings. Elkridge residents also recently defeated another plan to build nonsubsidized duplex units -- two homes in one building that looks like a large detached single-family house.

Since Spann and Deputy Director Thomas Carbo were chosen to replace longtime housing Director Leonard S. Vaughan and deputy Neil Gaffney in December, builders and affordable-housing advocates have been waiting to see what county officials may do next, which is why the room was packed at the Oakland Mills luncheon.

Spann told the group he was shocked to see the large gathering, which included several bankers and builders as well as social workers and nonprofit employees and volunteers who belong to the ACS umbrella group.

"I'm just stunned that all of these eyes are watching me," Spann, said, adding that he had expected a small group. "I'm absolutely overwhelmed. It did not occur to me there would be this much interest."

Earl Armiger , a builder working on a mixed-use retail and moderate-income apartment project on U.S. 1 in North Laurel, said he came because "I'm just trying to get a reading of what's on his mind."

Spann presented a slide show and lecture that laid out the basics of what his department and the separate county Housing Commission do. He told the group he believed that an extensive public education program is needed to persuade county residents not to fear moderate-income housing. He also stressed that he wants to find ways to get more private funding for affordable housing.


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