Priced Out in Howard

May 17, 1991

There's nothing homogenous about people who live in low-cost housing. Some are unskilled laborers. Others are employed as janitors, sales clerks, waiters and waitresses. Still others are on various forms of public assistance. In largely affluent Howard County, yet another group finds lodging in low-cost housing -- secretaries, police officers, teachers and technicians.

These people are integral stitches in the county's economic and social tapestry, yet few can afford to call Howard home. Now comes a report by the Enterprise Foundation predicting a serious countywide shortage of affordable housing. In the absence of a major policy jump-start, as many as one in ten lower-income Howard residents will be unable to find homes or apartments they can afford in the next 10 years. Already, fully 16 percent of the county's households need such housing because they earn appreciably less than $32,400, which is 80 percent of the area's 1989 median income. That number will be driven upward as Howard's employment base grows by an estimated 30,000 jobs over the rest of the decade; many of these are low- and moderate-paying service and government positions.

These statistics should send a clear message to Ellicott City. Affordable housing is no longer merely the right thing to do, but an economic imperative. County Executive Charles I. Ecker has made economic development a priority, yet this most basic component -- adequate housing for workers -- has rated little more than lip service. Past efforts have encountered rough sledding, thanks to residents concerned about the county's explosive growth and elitism.

These attitudes can no longer be tolerated. Howard has much to recommend it as a regional employment hub -- a highly educated work force, a high percentage of white-collar workers and one of the region's premier school systems. But industry can hardly be expected to flock to an area capable of housing only its executives.

There are low-interest loan programs available to developers and Howard's general plan calls for 267 units of low- and moderately-priced housing annually. What is needed is well-articulated vision from the county executive. The Enterprise Foundation report offers some guidance: The county should tap its stock of commercially zoned land and relinquish school sites in underdeveloped areas. It should also encourage developers of large projects to set aside low-income units instead of being forced to contribute to roads and schools. These are viable starting points for a focused, results-oriented affordable housing strategy, an initiative Howard County can ill afford to ignore.

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