A Confession About The Housing Issue


January 10, 1993|By KEVIN THOMAS

Not too long ago, I found myself embroiled in a controversy over some trees that were cut down behind my house in Columbia.

The trees weren't on my property, but I sure did think that having them there added something valuable to my surroundings. When the trees disappeared, I and several of my neighbors went after the tree cutters with a vengeance.

Personally, I made an idiot of myself; a number of officials in Columbia can testify to that fact. But I also learned a couple of things in the process.

The first has to do with that old, squeaky-wheel adage: Yell loud enough and people really do respond. In the end, trees were planted to replace the ones that got leveled.

The second lesson was that few things will produce a more visceral reaction than when a homeowner feels the value of his house is being threatened.

I offer all of this as a confession of sorts.

As I have pondered the failed attempts of some county officials to fashion legislation that would create affordable housing in Howard County, I admit that I have found myself on both sides of the issue.

First, I'm all for affordable housing. And I agree with county housing administrator Leonard Vaughan, who said in explaining the pending defeat of the affordable housing bill, affordable housing "became a no-growth issue rather than an equity issue."

I am always inclined to decide such matters as who will be allowed to buy a house and who won't on the basis of equity. But, at the same time, I am not entirely unsympathetic to those who feel threatened by the changes being proposed.

For instance, I do not believe that everyone who opposed the affordable housing bill did so because of race or class prejudices. Some, I'm sure, did. Others probably had legitimate concerns about the impact the legislation would have on their communities, and ultimately on the value of their own homes. Those people have a right to protect themselves.

A bill that allows developers to increase the density of a project in exchange for a certain percentage of units sold below market rate would create affordable housing. It would also cause more growth in certain areas than might otherwise occur.

A community's desire to maximize its potential by playing to its assets and barring anything that would detract from that is perfectly understandable. It's the American way. It's capitalism.

It is also selfish and elitist. It submerges the best qualities of the human spirit -- the ability to give without regard to personal gain.

Granted, it is difficult to imagine that the affordable housing bill proposed in Howard County would have inspired anyone to philanthropy. It offered assistance to households earning up to $43,000 a year. That is middle-class by most standards.

Unfortunately, in Howard County that level of salary also doesn't buy much. According to Ken Steil, president-elect of the Howard County Association of Realtors, the typical home buyer in Howard earns about $70,000 a year.

But Mr. Steil said a buyer earning $35,000 could find something ** in the $100,000 to $125,000 range. It may be a three-bedroom rancher in certain parts of Columbia, or it might be an older townhouse. In any case, the down payment could be as much as $7,000. The problem, Mr. Steil said, is that most households earning $35,000 a year -- especially if it's a one wage-earner family with children -- are not able to save enough for the down payment.

He suggested that the county consider a program that would assist buyers with their down payments and, indirectly, address the affordable housing problem.

I say the affordable housing bill would have done the same without county government having to subsidize buyers. The bill would have lowered the price of some new homes to a more comfortable $70,000 to $90,000, lowering the down payment required in the process.

The developer would have shouldered some of the loss on the moderately priced units in exchange for greater density and, as would have followed, greater profits on the market-rate units. But that would have required residents who are already here to make some adjustments.

Unfortunately, all the talk in the world about creating a more diverse population in the county -- one that would include new teachers, police officers and firefighters -- wasn't going to convince enough people to think beyond their own interests and support a modest effort to create affordable housing.

I'm ashamed to say that I've shared those inward-looking feelings myself. But there's something in me, and a lot of people much more selfless than I, that says there must be something more important than property values and avoiding some small, personal inconveniences.

The affordable housing bill may not have been the best test of Howard County's ability to be gracious and charitable. If it had been, we surely would have flunked. Let's just say we may have overreacted because of fear. But we'll think about it and . . . who knows?

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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