Friday, January 27, 2006

Mixing things up...

There is a good post over at Howard County Blog #2 (the one focused mainly on the Charrette) about the allocating affordable housing.

I have heard a lot of people talking about percentages of the median income in the county, but this strikes me as an irrelevant number. The median income finds the middle of the income distribution and doesn't tell us very much about the full distribution. To truly have mixed income housing you need housing for the entire range, preferably in proportions matching what people in the community can afford. Thus the starting point for mixed income housing needs to be: what are the incomes earned by the jobs in the community?

…To figure out what income-level mix in housing units we need it is important to get a better sense of the income ranges. How many jobs in the area pay less that $25,000 a year? How many pay $25,001 to $35,000? How many pay $35,001 to $45,000? How many pay $45,001 to $55,000? How many pay $55,001 to $65,000? How many pay $65,001 to $75,000? How many pay $75,001 to $100,000? How many pay over $100,000?
He's onto something. I'’ve heard this concept batted around for a little while now, and it strikes me as one of the better approaches for creating affordable housing. Certainly, as I have said many times before, our current system, even considering the Department of Planning and Zoning'’s proposed changes, is not going to make any meaningful difference in the overall lack of affordable housing. The mix of incomes in this county is (I presume) greatly out of step with the mix of housing choices; however, the actual extent of this discrepancy is unknown, and our lack of understanding of this imbalance is the first and most significant barrier to creating a better affordable housing program.

In developing Columbia, James Rouse understood that the best way to ensure a diverse community with housing choices for everyone was to build a diverse mix of homes—apartments, condominiums, townhouses, duplexes and single family homes are all prevalent in all of Columbia'’s villages. As we approach full "build out" in Columbia, the dwindling supply of new homes, coupled with the insane regional housing market, has increased the total costs of housing in general, pricing many families out of a market that was designed to include everyone. Evan at Howard County Blog #2 touches on this dilemma as it relates to young professionals earning between $30,000 and $45,000 per year:

If the calculation of what a person can afford to purchase is three times their annual income, then these young professionals would be looking for properties in the $90,000 to $135,000 range. You currently cannot find a condo in Howard County in that range, nor are there very many apartments that could be rented by people making this range of income. When I bought my one bedroom one bath condo 2.5 years ago I bought it for $110,500. A couple months ago an identical unit went for $205,000.

Unfortunately, there is no way we can replicate scale and scope of the housing choices created during Columbia's development; there isn't enough land. But we can replicate the concept, which is what Evan is rightly advocating.

To be sure, this approach presents a host of difficulties and would require a considerable amount of effort and political will to be enacted. One of the likely sticking points would be the level of governmental control over housing mixes and how you square that with a developerÂ’s need to make money. Overly restricting the available development options could lead to unintended consequences, particularly in the long-term (remember, we're thinking 30 years out). However, that is not to say that we couldn'’t create a system that is both flexible and prescriptive, in much the same way that New Town zoning was for many years.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows whether such an approach has been tried anywhere else. We know that thousands of jurisdictions have used inclusionary zoning (setting aside a percentage, usually around 15 percent, of all new development as affordable housing) to varying degrees of success; Montgomery County, one of the first to use such an approach, has created a significant amount of affordable housing, but has by no means found a panacea, if one even exists (not likely).

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