Frustrated by the lack of a plan to expand affordable housing, several Howard County Council members promised to introduce legislation on the issue by October if County Executive Ken Ulman does not act before then.
Advocates for affordable housing are upset that despite months of work by a citizens task force that culminated in a report in November, no comprehensive countywide plan has been proposed by Planning Director Marsha McLaughlin or Housing Director Stacy L. Spann.
McLaughlin said at a council work session late Tuesday that a plan will be coming in "a package we hope to bring to you in the fall."
The concerns reflect rising tensions in a county in which the average home price hovers around $450,000 - a level beyond the reach of many middle-income working families.
The frustration over the lack of affordable housing has become part of a debate on two bills that resulted from a festering Elkridge housing dispute.
At a County Council public hearing on the bills Monday night, advocates for affordable housing opposed two zoning measures sponsored by Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson that would restrict or block construction of two-family dwellings in some residential zones, including ones in Elkridge. Permitting such housing is a way to provide lower-cost homes, and housing advocates say changing zoning laws countywide just to protect a small part of Elkridge is overkill.
Watson's bills give the council a choice. One measure would limit two-family homes to lots larger than 12,000 square feet. The other would eliminate them in certain zones.
Elkridge residents and Watson say her bills are intended to block use of existing zoning to get higher density where no one expected it, not to thwart affordable housing. But groups pushing for more subsidized homes say the bills illustrate how a useful housing option can be eliminated when there is no countywide housing plan.
The council is expected to vote on the bills July 2.
A number of Elkridge residents were riled by builder John Liparini's aborted attempt to propose two-family homes - two units in one large building that would look like a single-family house - a technique used in Montgomery County to deliver more housing for middle-income families.
The residents said they believe he wanted to use regulations allowing accessory apartments or guest houses on some lots in a way the county never intended to build two-family homes. Liparini said he was merely using what existing laws say, not exploiting anything. Residents overreacted, he said.
He gave up the proposal in January, he said, after seeing the extent of community opposition.
At this week's hearing, speakers from Elkridge said they do not oppose affordable housing, but they do not want more two-family homes in their neighborhoods.
"This bill is not about affordable housing. This bill is about density," said Elkridge resident Diane Butler.
"To allow developers to use a loophole in the multifamily dwelling conditional use to double the density in areas that are already experiencing inadequate roads and infrastructure would reflect irresponsible planning," testified Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association Inc.
Others said higher-density housing is not compatible with existing Elkridge homes and would lead to more school and traffic congestion. The proposed two-family homes also would "have a negative impact on surrounding property values," despite their expected sale prices of more than $300,000, said David Marc of Elkridge.
Liparini abandoned his plan at a community meeting in January before he submitted it to the county government.
"When I saw how passionate the people of Elkridge are, I stood up and said I would not proceed," he said. "I got it. I got it in 10 minutes." He now plans 24 single-family detached homes on the 9.5 acres in question.
But Liparini said he agrees with residents that Elkridge has more than its share of subsidized housing, while more upscale areas, such as Maple Lawn or Turf Valley, have none. "Why can't the County Council address that issue and do something about it?"
Housing advocates at the hearing saw Watson's bills as one more impediment to providing new homes that working families - even those with incomes up to $110,000 a year - can afford.
"There is no need for this bill," said Robert M. Buchmeier, a member of the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, who worked on last year's county housing task force report. He testified against both bills, but was speaking about one that would block two-family units in some residential zones. The African American Coalition of Howard County also opposes the bills, although another civic group, the Howard County Citizens Association, favors them.
"Piecemeal fixes that apply to one or another zoning regulation will reduce Howard County's flexibility to meet its future housing demands, Buchmeier said."
Most county residents could not afford to buy the homes they now live in, he said, and Watson's bill will only limit the county's flexibility to remedy that. Without a vigorous effort, Howard will slowly evolve into an exclusive enclave of wealth instead of the diverse place it is now, he said.
"I do share your frustration about affordable housing," County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, told a speaker at the public hearing.
"I plan to take my summer to work on affordable housing and have legislation before the next budget cycle," Ball said.
Watson said she, too, wants to see a plan for more affordable housing.
County officials are working on ideas that could result in legislation by September, Watson said. "If not, something will come by October from the council."
Advocates have pushed for a law requiring as many as 20 percent of the new units in central Columbia's redevelopment be built for limited-income families; developers have argued for a lower figure. Columbia's New Town zoning has no requirement for subsidized housing, although county laws require 10 percent of new homes in mixed-use and some senior developments be for people of moderate income.