Progress on Affordable Housing

September 29, 1991

It comes as no surprise that Baltimore City houses a disproportionate share of the region's threadbare supply of affordable housing. The soaring cost of life in the suburbs -- and exclusionary regulatory policies there -- have stifled the development of moderately priced homes. Now, strapped for tax revenues, county politicians are beginning to re-think policies that have created these homogenous, largely upper-income enclaves.

In Howard County, where affordable housing has been an elusive goal, the county has kicked in subsidies to make rents manageable in the $14.8 million Columbia Commons apartment complex. Of the 200 units, 50 will be set aside for rents ranging from $234 to $424, making them affordable to those earning as little as $8,000 a year.

There's serious talk of trading higher density zoning for a percentage of moderately priced units. In Baltimore County, the Hayden administration is asking the developer of the Owings Mills New Town project to produce an affordable housing plan. Also in the works is a new policy offering incentives for moderate housing. Anne Arundel County, too, is moving in this direction.

Additionally, there is a pressing need to streamline county building codes, fees and other regulatory machinery. Some of the most effective measures to growth control -- zoning and impact fees -- have to be made more flexible.

Low-density zoning and other subdivision controls have, to some extent, masked darker agendas aimed at excluding certain kinds of people. Because elitist attitudes are hard to change, there is discussion in some quarters about mandating moderately priced development in all new projects, thus quelling opposition from -- the not-in-my-backyard crowd.

Another possibility is density bonuses that would permit developers to build more units in return for a percentage of affordable housing. This is the sort of creative, partnership approach necessary to create self-supporting, economically diverse communities -- communities that don't have to bus in truckloads of entry-level workers.

There is broad agreement that the residential building boom of the '80s won't return any time soon. Unless residents are willing to pay higher taxes for the services to which they've become accustomed -- and they clearly are not -- economic development will become a more important growth engine. To retain and lure business, counties must offer not only attractive neighborhoods and good schools, but houses that entry-level and mid-level workers can afford.

With the high end of the market severely depressed, builders are viewing less expensive homes as a growth area. That makes this a particularly propitious time to tackle the issue. Counties would be foolish to squander the opportunity.

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