Howard County Eye-Opener

September 12, 1991

Another report on the need for more "affordable housing" landed earlier this month in Howard County, the work of a 13-member task force for County Executive Charles Ecker. Don't yawn. This report contains a new assertion that is causing considerable conversation locally and which has metropolitan-wide relevance.

It recommends that county government not only find ways of providing housing for people with "traditional" low and moderate incomes, but says that just as serious a need exists for middle-income households -- those earning between $34,000 and $60,000 a year. Such consideration has to happen, the report reads, if affluent Howard is to "retain its young or even a significant portion of its middle-class residents."

FHA mortgages have helped many middle-class people start out in housing for years, but the thought of more ambitious incentives being needed is, startling, indeed.

Housing officials, planners, financial experts and builders throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area don't find the idea so surprising. They point out that builders specializing in entry-level housing, mainly town houses and condominiums favored by young adults, are thriving in this struggling economy.

They see first-time buyers flocking to Carroll and Harford counties and to southern Pennsylvania, trading off long commutes for affordable housing. They hear the young people frustrated by not being able to come up with the huge down-payments and settlement costs.

George Shehan, the president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland and a Harford County town house builder, says that for every $1,000 added to the cost of an entry-level house, 100,000 people nationally can no longer afford to buy that house. The market is there, but affordable new housing isn't.

The Howard County report calls for more apartments, town houses and condos -- as many as 20,000 in the next two decades. Other jurisdictions are hearing the same message.

Unfortunately, this message of more people living per acre, what builders call "densification," is anathema to sizable numbers of people who have been able to buy the stand-alone American dream on a quarter-acre lot in recent years. "Affordable housing" has become such a code word for "people not like us" that merely mentioning the term makes many homeowners bristle.

We encourage Howard County's politicians and leaders, as well as those elsewhere, to deal courageously with these very real housing problems -- and come up with creative solutions, such as multi-use zoning now being debated in Baltimore and Howard counties. Doing so isn't easy with highly vocal NIMBYs opposing every move. But as this Howard report documents, new ways of dealing with the housing crunch is essential for Maryland's suburban communities.

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