Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Developing a new way...

Up until now, much of the focus on this blog and elsewhere with respect to affordable housing has been quantifying the need. I don’t want to belabor this aspect of the debate any further. I think it is pretty well established that Howard County has a deficit of affordable housing and the question that now needs answering is: What do we do about it?

A group of smart, concerned people met over several months at the behest of former County Executive James Robey to discuss this question. The task force’s final report (available here in pdf format), offers an array of recommendations aimed at creating a "full spectrum" of housing available to meet the needs of our diverse workforce. (As an aside, it's a little funny that many are now coming to realize the importance of a range of housing options, considering this was at the heart of Columbia's creation over 40 yeas ago.)

Analyzing and discussing all of the task force's recommendations in one blog post is impossible. Instead, I'll try to address each individually in a series of posts, starting with the fairly non-controversial and straightforward idea to "leverage public dollars through public/private partnerships."

Public/private partnerships in the development of affordable housing and the preservation of affordable units need to be encouraged and utilized as a way to leverage public dollars. Neither sector can solve this problem alone.
This concept was echoed by County Executive Ken Ulman during his speech at the installation ceremony on Monday.

"We go further," Ulman said. "We know that a gap exists - and to a certain extent will always exist - between where we are today as a society and where we know we should be. Together we must constantly strive to bridge that gap.

"Government cannot do it alone. But working together with our business community, our nonprofit partners and, most especially, our citizenry, we can strive to close that gap."

What's curious about this idea is how far down the list of task force recommendations it falls. This, I believe, should be the guiding principle of our affordable housing program.

The days of public housing (i.e. government built and managed) are gone, for the most part. Since the 1970s, after it became apparent that government could do little more than warehouse the poor in large, isolated "projects," private developers -- both for- and non-profit -- took over the business, building houses and transforming neighborhoods (for the better) effectively and efficiently. Granted, much of the funding for low-income housing still comes from public sources -- both directly and, more so, indirectly through the tax code.

In Howard County, affordable housing is, for the most part, produced in one of two ways: by the Department of Housing and Community Development (public) or by for-profit developers as part of the Moderate Income Housing Unit program (private). Obviously, neither has been very effective.

Where there's room for improvement is with non-profit developers, a sector that is largely non-existent in this county. Which is unfortunate, given that our county is home to the leading organization committed to helping (financially and otherwise) small non-profit developers build affordable housing in their communities. It is a vast and mostly untapped resource that could help build on the legacy of its founder in the community where he made his name.

A stronger, savvier non-profit development sector has access to financial resources and can accomplish things for-profit developers and public agencies cannot. Furthermore, collaboration between the three sectors can create synergies that are vital to affordable housing development, especially in areas, like ours, where land and development are so expensive.

My thoughts on this aren't complete or very well-developed at this point. But I'm heading out to the transition team public hearing now, so I'll just post what I have and hope it makes sense.

Expect more affordable housing stuff tomorrow.

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