What Is Affordable Housing? HOWARD COUNTY

August 02, 1993

For some, the quest for affordable housing has taken on aspects of a crusade. And like any crusade, the potential to shade the facts is incessant for those on either end of the issue.

The Howard County Zoning Board recently unanimously endorsed an amendment that would allow developers to build at greater densities in some locations if they include affordable housing in their projects. The definition of affordable housing, however, was never made explicit. Councilman Paul Farragut, who authored the amendment, insists that "what we're really talking about is the $80,000 townhouse."

They may be as good a definition as any, at least in present-day Howard County. But the truth is affordable housing, in political circles, has come to mean everything from moderately priced townhouses and condominiums to below-market-rate rental units, and even subsidized, low-income housing. Just recently, the Howard County Housing Commission chose a development group to build 54 affordable townhouses. A majority of the homes will go on the rental market; only 24 -- a drop in the bucket -- will be offered for sale.

County Housing Director Leonard Vaughan explains that federal and state dollars are simply more available for rental housing than for home purchases. Nonetheless, elected officials repeatedly pitch the idea of affordable housing as something that would make first-time homebuyers of those who have been excluded from the market due to income. Often, their litany includes statements about helping young teachers and firefighters.

Mr. Vaughan contends that the need to create ownership opportunities is not as pressing as during the late '80s housing boom. The real estate market of the '90s has depressed housing prices so that more homes are now available for moderate-income buyers. What the county really lacks, Mr. Vaughan says, are rental units available for families earning $20,000 to $25,000 a year. The commission's plan is to make such rentals available so those families can begin saving to become homebuyers.

It's a worthy goal. However, elected officials need to be more explicit about just what Howard residents are getting when they back the aim of affordable homes. The officials' definition may include rental units, but many Howard countians think it means homes for sale.

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