Monday, December 19, 2005

Promise and peril of affordable housing

So I "borrowed" the idea for the title of this post from an obscure book. Who's gonna know, aside from my father? No one. Good. Let's just assume it's my idea and move on.

Following years of exploding home prices, a concerted effort from a coalition of local religious groups, and widespread public support during the charrette, affordable housing has moved onto the radar screens of local politicians. An attempt to provide a quick fix to the problem that would have transferred housing allocations from the county's rural west to its developed east failed in September, but this was probably a good thing.

Quick fixes usually don't help complex problems. And complex doesn't even begin to describe this issue.

Inevitably intertwined with the issue of affordable housing is that of growth. As much as I'd like to delve into that fiery pit of hyperbole and misinformation, I'll try to steer clear of it for now (though I hope--but don't promise--to write a coup de grâce on the topic in the coming weeks? Months? Sometime. Hopefully.).

What I can write now is something about affordable housing's increasing presence on the pages of the local rags and lips of local officials. Just last week, county executive James Robey broached the topic at a luncheon sponsored by the Association of Community Services. Of course, he was prodded into speaking on the matter by Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, who asked a question about including moderately priced housing in Town Center as a part of the charrette/master plan.

Robey's response was nothing special, saying "I think there should be affordable housing in Town Center. This will not be an exclusive area for the rich." However, his willingness to counter the charachteristic bigotry of opponents of inclusive housing was refreshing to hear.

"You're allowing 'those people' to move into our community" is the complaint he has heard, he said.

"To me, those people are cops and teachers, mechanics, carpenters and plumbers," said Robey, who spent 32 years in the Police Department, including seven as its chief, in his native Howard County.

That's nice, but what about affordable housing in Town Center? Certainly, it was an issue discussed and supported by many participants.

Andre J. DeVerneil, a leader of the Coalition for Affordable Housing that has pushed for moderate- income housing in Town Center, said his group wants 10 percent moderate-income and 10 percent middle-income. General Growth has talked about designating 10 percent of the 2,000 to 5,000 living units expected to be built over the next several decades as lower-cost housing.

DeVerneil said the issue was left "vague" after the weeklong planning charrette in October, though he said most participants appeared to support the concept of below-market housing.

"This is just a golden opportunity," and perhaps the last to include lower-priced housing in a large housing development in Howard County, DeVerneil said.

DeVerneil is right about this being a good opportunity to get a lot of affordable housing in highly desirable location--close to employment, entertainment, shopping, transportation, and schools. Beyond Town Center, much of the future development in the county will consist of smaller projects (because of limited land and fear of density), and using the percentage set asides affordable housing types love so much, additional growth under the current county allocation system will yield only minimal, scattered moderately priced units.

(For more information about affordable housing's role in the charrette, click here for a .pdf document written by the Planning department.)

But Town Center is only one part of the county, and clearly affordable housing is an issue throughout the county. Also clear is the fact that the county's existing affordable housing program is not effective, otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it. To counter the hyperactivity in the housing market that is driving up prices, the Planning department is proposing changes to the affordable housing program that would make these units available to wider range of income levels, supposedly to serve the needs of the middle income bracket.

County officials say they want to amend the county's Moderate Income Housing Unit law, which requires developers in the county to construct 10 to 15 percent of the houses they build for moderate-income families, depending on where in the county the houses are constructed.

Under the proposed policy, the county would require developers to use up to half of that 10 to 15 percent allotment to build middle-income dwellings, while using the remainder to construct houses for moderate-income families.

County housing officials say they are attempting to ensure that developers build more houses for teachers, nurses, police officers, retail and office workers, and other middle-income residents.

Affordable housing advocates don't like the plan because they say (and I'm paraphrasing) that it would rob from the poor to give to the middle class. And they're right, kind of. It does seem that some of the affordable housing set aside that would have gone to moderate income households will now go to middle income households, but they're focused on the wrong things.

We can argue all day about percentages and by the time the sun goes down we'll have accomplished close to nothing. The lack of affordable housing is not going to be ameliorated by going from 10 percent set asides to 15 or 20. We're talking about differences of tens of units a year in a county where the median household income is $82,065 and the median home price is over $400,000.

Indeed, a county study last May found that less than six percent of the homes available for sale that month were priced less than $260,000; using the standard assumption that one spends 3x annual income on housing, this means 50 percent of households are competing for less than six percent of the homes (yes I know this statement is fraught with statistical problems, but the point is valid). The profile of our housing stock is so out of touch with our income profile that such small-minded solutions will do next to nothing to help. Look at Montgomery county, a leader in the field of affordable housing with over 30 years of experience. Have they found a panacea for unaffordability?

All that will come of the proposed affordable housing solutions for Town Center and beyond are a couple of moderately priced houses (built who knows when) and a set ofpoliticianss who can rest happy thinking they stood up to developers and did what's best for the county. Gee, thanks.

If we were honest to ourselves about growth, housing, and our future, we would spend more time trying to understand the situation and developing ways to address it that would actually have an impact. Instead, it seems, we're happy with doing the minimum to get by (rather, votes) and calling it a day.

I usually hate it when people complain about something and don't offer any solution. In this case, I'd love to offer a solution, but I just don't have one. I might, however, if I actually had a clearer sense of the scope and scale of the problem, but that would require (for me, but not the county) more information than some Census figures and a search of Pat Hiban's website.

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