Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Odds and ends...

I'm working on a post about small, locally-owned businesses, their place within our community and ways we can help level the playing field to make them more competitive with large chain stores and restaurants. Feel free to share your thoughts about these in the comments section. I'm interested to hear, specifically, whether you think we have too few, too many or just the right about of them; whether you're willing to pay a premium or endure minor inconveniences to patronize them; and whether you think we should be doing more to ensure they have a chance to thrive.

Or, feel free to talk about these odds and ends...

First, People Acting Together in Howard (PATH) -- a local coaltion of religious organizations -- recently announced its proposals to create more affordable housing in Howard County. Among them are requiring developers to set aside 25 percent of all new housing units for moderate income households and creating a $30 million trust fund that the county would use to bolster its affordable housing efforts, both for renters and owners.

Both of these ideas are very ambitious, but that's what is needed to truly make a dent in this problem. Montgomery County, despite being a leader in the inclusionary zoning/affordable housing field and having a 15 percent set aside for decades, is still struggling with affordability problems. Getting the developers to go for a 25 percent set aside -- which is higher than any other jurisidiction I've seen -- is going to be tough.

When thinking about housing affordability, I tend to ignore ideas predicated on large amounts of public money. Public housing has a troubled history (to say the least), and funding for housing is often one of the low-hanging fruits during budget season. But this shouldn't discredit PATH's idea.

The county's housing department has an annual budget of about $14 million, with a good amount coming from federally mandated programs. An infusion of $30 million annually could do a lot of good, assuming it's used for programs that work, like, say, vouchers.

Housing vouchers are not perfect, but since they've been reappropriated as tenant-based rather than project-based, they've been pretty successful (tenant-based means the vouchers belong to the families and not landlords). Under the voucher program, families pay 30 percent of their income to housing and the voucher covers the rest. Naturally, demand for the vouchers far outstrips supply.

But what if Howard created its own voucher program? I don't want to delve too far into the specifics, but something that supplements the federal program could build off of a proven system and extend affordable housing to a much larger group of people, especially if we've got $30 million to work with. A back of the envelope calculation (assuming a per voucher cost of $7,600 -- the federal government's per voucher cost [which includes overhead]) shows that almost 4,000 families could escape the burden of high housing costs with this level of funding. It's not a solution, but it's more than a start.

Certainly, this isn't the only way the money could be used. But it's one that would be effective and one that would surely deliver results.


The second item comes to us from the Financial Times. Robert Putnam -- author of the book Bowling Alone, which described an America becoming more and more disengaged -- has some thoughts on diversity, something Columbia prides itself on.

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.

The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust. “They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” said Prof Putnam. “The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching.”

Interesting, no? Thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I think the voucher system is just the ticket. Why are we concentrating on creating affordable housing via new residential development? Every single apartment complex I contacted this week had vacancies. It isn't a matter of needing more units.. its a matter of making them affordable. A voucher system could also be constructed to favor county employees- like police officers, firefighters, teachers... Because 'affordable' isn't 'low income', after all... and what we decide to subsidize should benefit first and foremost county employees, and then residents who work in the county... and perhaps last or never... residents generated from BRAC.

Its about creating a self sustaining community... providing for our own, first. And about thinking regionally- in terms of allowing the BRAC growth to fuel redevelopment and revitalization in our neighbor to the north- Baltimore City.
mary catherine

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mary Catherine re: BRAC being a regional issue of a lesser local priority and affordable housing locally being of a higher local priority, but neither should be considered in a context absent the entirety of the General Plan, and existing local, state, and federal environmental regulations, agreements, and goals.

Yet, I don't believe public employees should be handed housing vouchers. Instead, they should be paid adequately to live in the communities they serve. If we can't afford to pay them adequately, that indicates to me we're growing too fast to afford the additional staffing outlays.

But doesn't APFO protect against growth that overcrowds schools, requiring additional staffing? Well, maybe over-55 development not being subject to APFO (thereby shifting these families to new housing and putting young families with kids into our schools) needs to be revisited. Does it make any sense that over-55 developments are springing up like crazy? Yes, but they should be subject to APFO in some way, too, both so we can afford to pay teachers enough and so school capacity planning will work better.

Re: "...rural South Dakota, where 'diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic'", do some reading on Norway and you may understand better some Norweigian expats' sentiments re: Sweden.

More locally, I have seen instances of some folks having heightened distrust as a result of diversity. During one weekend brunch out, I overheard an adjacent conversation where one person was voicing their concern that the most dangerous threat to their faith's community was the exposure of their community to the diversity in Columbia. While I felt I understood sufficiently how that conclusion could be ascertained, I thought at the time it was a flawed conclusion since I think communities (of faith or otherwise) are strengthened by being exposed to diversity, thereby having another way to reflect upon their own communities' value and meaning.

Anonymous said...

Making developers bear the burden of affordable housing by requiring them to set aside 25% of their product for "affordable" housing is always popular. Nobody likes developers anyway.
The sad truth is that these types of requirements only serve to make housing, particularly new housing, more expensive. It works as hidden tax. Developers are not going to simply set aside a quarter of their product without passing that cost on to the other 75%.

Anonymous said...

And, of course, although developers can shift the burden to buyers of the other 75%... they still get the bonus of additional density because they agreed to build affordable housing. So now we have higher density which impacts our infrastructure even more- And creates a squeezed-in final product that looks nothing like the surrounding communities.

Anyway you slice it- affordable housing will cost existing residents more in straight up or hidden taxes... which is fine with me... because I think it is a valuable employment incentive to provide help with housing... but I don't want to pay more in taxes AND get more density.

Use what we already have more creatively.

Q: 55 and older communities are springing up all over because:
a) There is a great need for our older citizens.
b) Because the building incentives and exceptions from APFO make it lucrative for developers. or
c)All of the above?)

mary catherine

Robin Abello said...

Hi, my wife and I have always liked going to small locally owned restaurants especially those that offer a more more casual and down to earth atmosphere. We don't mind paying a little bit more because often these places are also smaller and they don't have the promotional dollars that the big chains do. It's also nice when you get to meet the restaurant owner(s). One little side project I've been involved with is a community website (www.ezColumbia.com) where we're building a medium for small and locally owned businesses to promote themselves. We're currently working on a local restuarants directory and we're going to highlight small locally owned restaurants so that the community can share and discover their favorite restaurants in the community. We're hoping to build a community site where people can leave comments about the little restaurant around the corner that they like and make recommendations about what to order.