Tuesday, February 27, 2007

But political incompatibility led to their downfall...

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.
There are more options to choose from here.


Anonymous said...

A lot of those bullet points mirror comments in the report you referenced on 2/15. Just for reference, that report was from a think tank that seems to be heavily supported by lenders and developers, groups that would seem to benefit from implementing those bullet points.

Taking your call for a larger public dialogue and running with it, concurrent with looking at immediate solutions for affordable housing should also be a search for the underlying reasons why affordable housing is needed. Do we have a living wage yet? Do we have education, economic, and social policies that provide the entirety of our community the means to avoid poverty? In the best interest of the citizens and environment of Howard County, what should Howard County's population be? Should the population grow? If so, at what rate? What are the underlying economic factors that result in people moving from their homes to incur such issues as density, pollution, and affordable housing elsewhere? Are we contributing to those factors or lessening them? Should a more regional mindset be taken when looking for some of the affordable housing solution? How much of D.C.'s and Baltimore's housing stocks are currently under public ownership and vacant, awaiting reoccupancy and renaissance?

Hayduke said...

Yes, many of the suggestions are the same as those I mentioned last week. But that’s the point. These are proven strategies from similar communities around the country and they are worth repeating, especially since it shows the breadth of opportunities we have available.

I appreciate your questions and desire to have a larger public dialogue about our future, but with respect to this issue, your comment is mostly a red herring. Yes, we need to think more regionally and holistically. Yes, Baltimore needs to be revitalized. But we also have a demonstrable and increasingly critical need for affordable housing now and for the foreseeable future. And that’s what I’m trying to focus on: How to increase the supply of affordable housing (even marginally). Note the difficulty and challenges faced in building any affordable housing recently. Broader issues are important, but they’re not the topic of this post.

Finally, trying to discredit the Center for Housing Policy by associating them with developers – the same thing you did with Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Policy a while back – is a cheap way of arguing. With Harvard, it didn’t bother me quite as much, but the author of CHP’s report is a colleague of mine and a researcher with only the highest integrity. Your chosen tactic – it is telling that you used it to open your comment – speaks to the weakness of your arguments. Moreover, one can easily turn it against you: As a homeowner/existing resident of Howard County, you would seem to financially benefit significantly from further limits on the total supply of housing in this county.

jim adams said...

Hayduke, please excuse the use of your site. I can not post to Free Market. FM has a posting in reference to Al Gore and UMBC. I thought if any one wanted to attend the presentation, I would pass the web site address along.
Thanks Hayduke, and Happy Late Birthday to the pup.

Anonymous said...

I don't think my beginning comment was a red herring at all. It was neither inaccurate, nor off topic insofar as it provided disclosure of the Centers' benefactors' and board members' potential fiscal interests in this matter. Had such disclosure been rightly included in the beginning of the report in the first place (it wasn't), my beginning comment would have been unnecessary.

I wouldn't call such disclosure "a cheap way of arguing". Nor am I "associating them with developers" - they are associated. If you take that to be discrediting, so be it.

And I followed it with what I felt lacking in the report - looking, as you said, more holistically at the underlying causes for the need for affordable housing, solutions to those causes now, prevention of those causes in the future, and looking more regionally for more options, both economically and logistically, some of which do not so directly align with the aforementioned parties' fiscal interests.

It was the report's omission of those items and its seemingly more thorough inclusion of what I consider 'give a man a fish' means that led me to delve into the Center further. (Ok, it was also the authoritative sounding, but nebulous organization name that piqued my interest to pull back the curtain a little, too.)

Anyway, speaking of Al Gore, is it a red herring to also point out that the National Association of Science Teachers turned down an offer of 50,000 free copies of "An Inconvenient Truth" from the film's producers for distribution to high school teachers because they feared it would endanger their funding sources?

Of course the two situations here are not directly related, but transparency, even if it's just disclosure of association, benefits all.

Very hypocritical to come from an anonymous comment, but there it is. Then again, you're writing for 6 billion anonymous humans and some other literate species to read, so an anonymous comment or two can't be all that bad.

I have no reason to doubt your colleague's integrity. Kudos to you for disclosing your association, albeit later rather than sooner.

"Homeowners/existing residents of Howard County would seem to financially benefit significantly from continuing existing limits [note the important semantic difference from 'further limits' which can imply more restrictive limits] on the total supply of housing in this county." That is true only if housing demand exceeds supply and economic factors are favorable. http://www.slate.com/id/2160840/

The issues won't get easier, but increased discussion will certainly help.

Anonymous said...

Now, I say to you--so what. What are we going to do about it?

Everytime an issue like affordable housing or a potential housing development comes up, hundreds come in opposition and the "pro-affordable housing crew" are silent.

If we want it when Centennial Gardens, the Liparini project and countless others come up, come out in support. Complaining about it after it's dead does not help. Telling the politicians they should do something does not help. Us giving them the support when it's decision time helps.

If we care, we have to step up and take some of the heat with them when the kitchen is hot, not afterward during a Monday-morning QB session.

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