'Affordable Housing' Is Elusive

THE WAY IT IS

September 29, 1991|By Jeff Griffith

We have had yet one more long-range planning session featuring elected officials of Carroll's eight municipalities and the county commissioners.

We have yet to see, after more than two years, substantiveprogress on what is perhaps the most pressing, most persistent and most perplexing problem on the town-county agenda.

Actually, we still await a definition: What is "affordable housing?"

To some, the phrase conjures up apocalyptic visions of "those people" -- read poor inner-city people -- housed in teeming tenementsrising high over the green fields of home. Just think: If we had affordable housing here, some of "those people" might move in.

In reality, however, Carroll's lack of affordable housing is of a differentcast.

In the absence of a better definition, let's say that affordable housing is housing our children can afford. Not much help, you say. True, but a place to start.

We'll leave the details to the experts. Let's focus on the practical problem.

Carroll has far too few homes priced below $100,000. The principal and interest for a mortgage payment on that amount, at 9 percent for 30 years, is $805 a month.

By comparison, the going rate for renting a two-bedroom town house in Westminster or Freedom District runs from about $650 to $750.

Town houses are about the only new homes available in the $100,000 price range. But very few are available in Carroll. Why?

At least partly because virtually no land outside the municipalities is zoned for that type of housing, and because very little land in the proper zoning classifications is left within municipal boundaries.

And why is that? Mostly because creating the proper zones is an uphill battle for town and county officials. And zoning requires not only planning but also deciding. And deciding means taking the heat.

Picture this scene: The commissioners, the mayor and the town council are conducting a hearing on the comprehensive rezoning of a Carroll town and its environs. The hall is packed. Citizens are testifying. Citizens are livid. The elected officials are perplexed.

The proposal includes zoning for town houses (affordable housing). Town houses mean density. Town houses mean prices within reach of our children, but town houses mean density.

One citizen's testimony captures the Catch-22 quality of the situation: "If you allow these town houses you'll destroy our community, overburden our schools, overtax our law enforcement, ruin the countryside and curdle all the milk within miles!

It's getting so that our children can't afford to buy homes in the county anymore!"

The message is, "Don't build any housing that creates any kind of density. Please build housing that my kids can afford. Don't change the character of our community. Please make sure that the children stay, but put affordable housing in somebody else's neighborhood." The NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Back Yard).

Add to the basic difficulty of making any tough political decision the tension between county and town agendas and the absurdity of the scenario becomes evident.

The county's Master Plan is designed to focus growth around the towns. The water, sewer, roads and other basic infrastructure is already there -- albeit in need of upgrade or expansion.

And limiting growth to the areas around the existing town centers means protecting green space, either through agricultural preservation or through agricultural and conservation zoning, land-use designations that limit density significantly.

The towns, on the other hand, don't want the growth, especially if increased density is part of the equation. Not even if ag-land preservation, indeed preservation of the rural character of the county, is at risk.

And so commissioners and mayors and council members are likely to continue to attend long-range planning sessions and we are likely to continue to await solutions tothe pressing, perplexing, persistent problem of "affordable housing," at least until our leaders face reality.

Affordable housing is housing our children can afford. Affordable housing means density. Thelack of affordable housing doesn't keep "those people" away; the lack of affordable housing drives our kids away.

"Those people" are us. Even NIMBYs have kids. Curdle some milk, leaders. Forget planning.Decide.

And that's the way it is.

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