My boss and I were talking today about problems – specifically, how we approach them. Although, as in everything, there is a continuum and not a dichotomy, we agreed that there seem to be two camps: one that seeks to fully and accurately describe the problem and one that does something about it.
The point of this is, of course, not to bore you with the philosophical discussions my boss and I share, but rather to put it in the context of Howard County. Accordingly, our conversation got me thinking about this article from a couple weeks ago (read it quick before the Sun makes you pay for the privilege). For the sake of this post's context, here are a few key excerpts:
John Liparini walked in from a snow flurry at 7:30 p.m., armed with facts and figures in support of two modest developments in Elkridge to aid moderate-income families. Less than 90 minutes later, he bowed to unrelenting opposition from residents and scrapped both projects, at least temporarily.
That experience encapsulates a broader issue for the county: The divergence between public policy and public will.
The conflict, some say, may be the county's single largest problem because it pervades discussions on many of the most critical issues.
"I think it is true that there is a conflict between what the general public wants and what the politicians want or the government believes should happen," says Katherine L. Taylor, an attorney who has represented residents opposed to development. "Unless the public policy is one to benefit the people who are directly affected by the land-use changes, I think there will always be that conflict."
…"It's a challenge," says Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. "The county is a wonderful place to be, and we have a great quality of life. ... But there is a very limited amount of land. One option is to sprawl all over western Howard County, but we're trying not to do that."
McLaughlin says a "larger public dialogue" might be beneficial to shape development policy.
…Taylor faults elected officials with too often fashioning policy with no thought of public response to implementation.
"The error that politicians make, and the developers as well, is not stepping into the shoes of the people who live there and saying, 'What would we want here? What would we expect?' " Taylor says.
"The big problem is that the people who are affected have no input or no choice. The only way they have input is to be protestants -- opposing something."
That has been especially evident in the efforts to provide housing for moderate- and low-income families.
While the need for those units is rarely disputed, that has not translated into acceptance for specific developments in many cases.
Indeed, the problem was underscored recently when a report to County Executive Ken Ulman noted that providing affordable housing "is one that the community supports in principle, but often opposes in implementation."
I rather enjoyed the article when I first read and have thought about it several times since, but whenever I considered writing about it, the only thing I could come up with was: So what? It's a perfectly articulated description of the big picture problem, but that's it.
These discussions, debates, contrasts and such are clearly evident to anyone who's ever paid attention to the local news or read the local blogs. We're dealing with them every day, hopefully groping towards something resembling common ground but, more likely, solidifying further the divide.
So, in order to make some use of what is truly decent journalism, let's look at it as a springboard to something more -- a "larger public dialogue" perhaps. And though I know it's been an idée fixe on this blog for some time, affordable housing seems like as good a topic as any.
Since the article is inherently about the disconnect between preferences and will, we should home in on that – specifically, as it relates to affordable housing, something that's popular to support in theory but oppose in practice.
I think the case has been made that the county is sorely lacking in affordable housing opportunities (but, please, feel free to refute this) and, therefore, the discussion should start with the question: "What do we do about it? Specifically?"
Here's a list of some of my thoughts. It's not fully developed or explained, but it's a start. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
- Public subsidies? Probably not on the local level, but if we're talking about really low income housing (which we should), then state or federal funding should come into play.
- Greater density, where appropriate? Absolutely.
- Creative redevelopment projects, including village centers, to increase the amount of available land? Yes.
- Less restrictions on growth (i.e., increased annual housing allocations)? Perhaps.
- A smoother development process? Likely, especially for projects including affordable units.
- Mandatory set asides/Inclusionary Zoning? OK, but this approach strictly proportional to the total amount of annual development and therefore is limited in its capacity to make any progress. It's much more of a "treading water" approach.
- Fewer restrictions on housing type and size (i.e. allowing developers to build smaller houses)? Certainly.
- Quasi-public money (housing trust funds, tax increment financing, housing bond issuances)? Yes, depending on feasibility.