Monday, March 13, 2006

When solutions become problems...

The Sun yesterday wrote about a programmatic shift in the effort to provide more affordable housing for Howard County's lower income families. While the focus has thus far been on providing homeownership opportunities -- through an entirely ineffective program -- the Department of Housing and Community Development has come to the conclusion that homes are just too damn expensive and we should instead create a de facto Second Class.

Inflation has made low-income housing an impossibility, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, and attendant costs such as higher property taxes and community association and condominium fees are crippling the county's efforts to provide moderate housing for families in the $35,000 to $60,000 income range.

Vaughan said that although home ownership always has been a program goal, the high prices may force taking another route. "The best way to keep housing affordable is to make it rental. We may want to do more rental," he said.
Saying the housing department is to blame for the creation of a second, non-home-owning class of citizens is probably a little strong, but Vaughn is essentially raising the white flag because...well, it's just too hard to build affordable homes.

(I fully support the creation of more rental housing for families of modest means -- some people simply can't or don't want to own their own homes, and that's fine. But that doesn't mean we give up on trying to find homes for moderate income families that want to own a little slice of heaven, er, Howard.)

In only a few years, Howard County's affordable housing program has been a resounding failure. And the article, probably unwittingly, explains why.
General Growth Properties Inc. is planning to add an apartment house to fulfill its voluntary obligation for moderate-income units. The county wants the one- and two-bedroom apartments to be for any age occupants, including some young families, while General Growth Vice President Dennis Miller wants to house only seniors.
Too many senior houses, not enough for families? We're getting warmer.
But the county has no legal power over General Growth because the moderate units are a voluntary, self-imposed program of the builders. Neither Emerson nor the nearby Maple Lawn mixed-use project have enough density (homes per acre) to trigger the county's moderate-income housing law.
Exempting the two largest developments in the past decade from affordable housing requirements? Now we're onto something.
Another case in point is one moderate-income townhouse in Cherrytree Park, where a woman who bought a unit in August 2004 sold it back to the housing commission last month to move to Virginia - and made a $112,000 profit - roughly a 50 percent return, according to Vaughan. Inflation drove the price of homes at Cherrytree from $240,000 to $470,000. That means that although the first buyer paid $118,700 for the house, the next one must pay $220,000 or more.
Failing to establish any real price controls and mechanisms to ensure that affordable houses stay affordable? Yes, that's a good way to ensure you never catch up with needs. But wait, there's more.
Vaughan told the board he is seeking County Council legislation that would reduce property tax bills for moderate-income home buyers. Instead of owing taxes on the full value of the house, buyers would pay only for the percentage of the building they own - usually 51 to 60 percent. The nonprofit county housing commission owns the remaining portion.
Forcing moderate income buyers who participate in the program to pay the full taxes on something they own only half of? Although it's not the main reason why our program is a complete and utter failure, it's the dumbest part of any otherwise dumb policy. How did this ever seem right/fair.

All of this would be excusable if this was a ground breaking approach to affordable housing. But it's not. Not even close. Montgomery County, among many, many others, has had a similar program for over 30 years (a few years less than 30 when Howard developed it's program). Surely there was enough information about what works and what doesn't. It's too bad nobody, apparently, bothered to actually look into that.

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