Affordable Housing Is In 'Crisis'

Shortage Creating Lack Of Entry-level Workers

May 19, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff report

Howard County must act now to avoid a shortage of "crisis proportions" in its stock of affordable housing, a conference of developers, civic leaders and elected officials was told here last week.

The affordable housing shortage could affect as many as one-tenth of residents during the next decade and limit economic growth because of a "serious mismatch" between employers and the supply of entry-level workers, according to a report released at the conference by the EnterpriseFoundation, an advocacy group for low-income housing.

Former Montgomery County Council member Norman Christeller urged the county to "use every program you can find" to create affordable housing.

A shortage of such housing is causing Montgomery County tolose businesses, he said. And although "Howard County is (now) seen as Mecca" for businesses, unless it improves the housing situation, it will face the same losses, he predicted.

The county's stock of affordable housing -- which could be bought by people whose income is 80 percent or less of the area median -- is limited because the majority of homes built in the past decade have been market-rate or luxuryhomes, said David G. Cramer, who directed the Enterprise Foundation study.

As a consequence, 52 percent of all low- and moderate-income renters in Howard County -- 2,685 persons -- are paying more than 35 percent of their income for housing, the conference was told. And most homes for sale here are beyond the range of even moderate-income people. The average price among homes purchased here in March was $183,978, according to the Howard County Board of Realtors.

About 800county residents are currently on a waiting list for subsidized housing and the number of homeless families is growing.

The report predicts that Howard County, which created 38,500 new jobs in the past 10 years, will see another boom in the 1990s as 30,000 new jobs and 19,000 new households are created. But unless more affordable housing is available, one in 10 low-income county residents will be unable to find such housing here.

Secretaries, typists, word processors and day-care center directors needed to support new industry earn less than 50 percent of median income, or $20,250, the report said. And entry-level teachers and mid-level electronics technicians needed to support new industry earn less than 80 percent, or $32,400.

The county's willingness to fulfill "every American's right to have a decent place to live" has been a "very vexing issue for some time," said County Council chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd.

The major obstacles preventing construction of affordable housing here are the high cost of land, a severe cutback in federal housing programs, and a lack of community acceptance, said Cramer, of the Enterprise Foundation.

Despite the obstacles, the county "can and should provide affordable housing for all its citizens," he said, but must act now.

Recalling hisdays on the Montgomery council, Christeller told the conference he thinks Howard County is where Montgomery was in the mid-1970s, when itbegan to address the issue.

Despite an approach that has been widely praised, affordable housing in Montgomery County is still in short supply, Christeller said.

"I hope you can learn from our successes and some of our mistakes."

The heart of the Montgomery County approach, which Cramer is recommending for Howard County, is called "inclusionary zoning." Every development of 50 or more units must include a few "moderately priced" units. In return, the developer is permitted to build a higher density than the zoning would otherwise allow.

Christeller showed slides of just such a subdivision. Single-family detached houses costing $650,000 were built across the street from$65,000 to $70,000 town houses that were built "cheek by jowl" with $250,000 town houses.

Despite the close proximity of the moderately priced units, the developer had no trouble selling the $650,000 detached houses or the $250,000 town houses, Christeller said.

The law stipulates that one-third of the moderately priced units be sold tothe county housing opportunities commission or to non-profit developers who offer the units to the very poor.

As a result, Christellersaid, there are four levels of income in the same project: very poorfamilies whose annual income is as little as $12,150, moderate-income families whose income is $32,400 or less, families with incomes of about $82,000 or more, and families with incomes of about $215,000 ormore.

Christeller said the program has been "extremely successful" and that recent studies have shown that land values are not adversely affected when moderately priced dwelling units are mixed into a subdivision.

The main drawback is that the supply of available moderately priced units is very small in proportion to the demand. Buyers of those units are chosen by lot from an eligibility list. As many as1,000 people have applied for as few as 20 units, Christeller said.

Howard County would have to vary the program greatly if it were touse it here and stay within the General Plan guidelines, calculations show. Assuming every Howard project would include moderately pricedunits at the same 16 percent rate in Christeller's example, the county would have to build 3,125 units a year to meet the General Plan goal of 500 new low- to moderate-income units a year. However, the General Plan calls for no more than 2,500 units overall to be built each year.

If the figures presented by Cramer are used, the picture is even worse. Cramer says the county will need 770 new low- and moderate-income units a year during the next decade. But in that case, the county would have to build 4,813 units a year if the set-aside were 16percent.

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