Affordable housing bills fail to win council support

December 31, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard County Councilman Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, made a final attempt yesterday to save legislation that would increase the county's affordable housing stock by 250 units a year, but to no avail.

Council members Darrel Drown, R-2nd, Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, said they expect to vote against the legislation Monday night, assuring its defeat.

Mr. Farragut had hoped to salvage the legislation by making voluntary what sponsor Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, had sought to make mandatory with the three-bill package.

Mr. Gray's proposal, worked out with a 13-member task force of developers, county officials and others over the past year, would require builders of developments with 10 or more units to reserve 10 percent of those units for households that earn 75 percent or less of the county's median income.

Such a criterion would allow households with incomes up to $43,000 to participate in the program. But priority would be given to households with the lowest qualifying incomes. Priority also would be given to first-time homebuyers, persons who work in the county and people who live in the county.

The reserved units would be aesthetically similar in appearance to market-rate homes and would be sold at cost -- $70,000 to $92,000 -- to eligible buyers. Participating builders could increase the number of units in their developments by 20 percent in exchange for building the cheaper units.

Under Mr. Gray's proposal, builders of 39 or fewer units in a single development could, if they preferred, contribute to a county housing fund rather than build affordable housing. The fund would be used to increase the county's affordable housing stock. Builders of 40 or more units in a single development could contribute to the fund in lieu of building affordable units, or they could build affordable units elsewhere if they are unable to build them at their primary site.

Making the program voluntary rather than mandatory would not make it any more palatable, said Mr. Drown. "You are still going to help out middle-class to upper-middle-class households, set up a growing bureaucracy and increase density countywide. To me, that's three good reasons not to vote for it."

Mr. Feaga agreed. He said he is concerned that the program would increase bureaucracy and subsidize people who can afford to purchase new homes without help.

"If we do the proper zoning, [affordable housing] will happen" naturally, Mr. Feaga said.

Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing administrator, said he doubts it. Zoning that would allow apartments and town houses will not make prices more affordable, he said. Some new town houses cost $175,000 to $180,000 now and will be priced even higher when the recession ends, he said.

Unless this or a similar program is adopted, the county will not have a future supply of affordable housing for middle-income families, he said.

It is mainly people already here who are creating a middle-income housing shortage, Mr. Vaughan said. "We don't need in-migration. We have enough clients already being generated in the county -- children coming home after graduating from college and people living in apartments shared by three, four or five others."

The program "seemed so logical" when first proposed that "many people assumed it would sail through without opposition," he said. "Also, the timing was off, coming in the midst of a recession. The need for such a program was masked" by falling prices and the other effects of a slumping economy.

It didn't help that the county was considering other zoning issues, Mr. Vaughan said. Council members balked at offering increased density to developers electing to build affordable housing.

"It became a no-growth issue rather than an equity issue," Mr. Vaughan said.

Despite the opposition, Mr. Gray remains hopeful. Straw votes taken in work sessions do not always mirror legislative action. Between now and Monday night, at least one other council member might be persuaded to accept the program if it were made voluntary, providing the 3-2 margin needed for passage.

Making the program voluntary is "a good approach," Mr. Gray said. "I hope the builders will participate and provide much-needed affordable housing. After a couple of years, we can evaluate it, and if necessary, make it mandatory."

The legislation was first presented to the council in October, has been tabled twice and may not be put on hold again. But it may be withdrawn and reintroduced in identical or modified form at a later date.

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