Neall Urged To Focus More On Affordable Rental Housing

March 22, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Samuel Goldreich | JoAnna Daemmrich and Samuel Goldreich,Staff writers

When O. James Lighthizer was about to leave office last October, he challenged the next county executive to make housing more affordable.

His successor, Robert R. Neall, is now considering a task force's recommendations on ways to lower the price of the American Dream.

But an ad hoc citizens group presented Neall with a five-page report last week that said the emphasis on home ownership ignores "the people most in need of affordable housing -- the homeless, the poor, the elderly and other dependent people."

The Anne Arundel Affordable Housing Coalition urged Neall to find ways to expand the county's stock of affordable apartments and rental homes.

"We do not, in anyway, want toattack the current administration," said Diane Goforth, chairwoman of the group. "We went to tell him who we are and what we've done, so we can help develop some new housing concepts."

The coalition of housing advocates, developers and human services representatives was formed last May by the Council of Community Services, an umbrella organization of human services providers.

Coalition members questioned whether the suburban ideal should be limited to owning aconventional single-family home.

"Basically, our biggest problem with the (task force) report is that it excludes so many people who can't afford to buy," Goforth said. "There was much too little on rental housing and other options that could help an important segment of this county."

Unsubsidized apartment rents in the county have soared in recent years, with the average climbing from $292 in 1980 to $574 last year, the Office of Planning and Zoning reported last April.

"To find something under $400 is very difficult," said Sharon Hoffman, the county's human services planner.

The number of apartmentsrenting for less than $400 dropped from 1,745 in 1989 to 605 in 1990, while units costing more than $600 jumped from 4,049 to 6,166.

The coalition has endorsed much of the Lighthizer task force report issued in October. But members advised Neall to use more county money as seeding for federal rental development assistance to balance its aggressive home-ownership programs.

The county was one of the most active participants in state mortgage subsidy programs in fiscal 1989,with $22 million, the coalition reported. But it attracted only $210,000 in rental housing aid.

"I accepted their paper and we agreed to pursue it," Neall said Wednesday. "There could be some things I will consider in my budget."

Developers, business leaders, advocatesfor the poor and other community leaders will be asked to join the effort, Goforth saidThursday, when a dozen of the 28 coalition membersdiscussed options to increase rental housing.

Yevola Peters, director of the Community Action Agency, emphasized the need for a partnership between the county and Anne Arundel's public housing authority,as recommended both by the coalition and the county task force.

Several Maryland counties, including Montgomery and Prince George's, work closely with their public housing authorities in financing efforts. But with its housing authority saddled with high vacancy rates anda long waiting list, Anne Arundel County lags far behind.

One issue the county faces is how to assure continued participation of private apartment complexes in federal rental subsidy programs that originated 20 years ago.

"We're working on a policy right now," said assistant planning and zoning officer Kathleen Koch, who administers county housing development programs.

With final payments approaching on accelerated federally insured mortgages for many projects, the county is exploring federal and state partnerships to preserve those units for low-income housing, Koch said.

Responding to the concerns of the coalition, Koch stressed that every time the county helps someone buy a home it reduces pressure on the rental housing market.

Guided by the tight budget, she said the county's top two priorities this year might include starting a housing counseling program for first-time buyers and granting zoning density incentives to developers whocommit part of their land to moderately priced housing.

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