Hayden's fast-track housing plan falters

August 22, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden's administration has failed to make good on its promise made nearly eight months ago to speed development approvals as an incentive to spur construction of affordable homes.

The idea was that building detached, single family homes in the $110,000 to $150,000 range would keep young families from moving to more rural counties.

But the idea remains mired in delay and bureaucratic disagreements.

Mr. Hayden was asked about the proposal three times over two days last week, but begged off answering, saying he needed a briefing on the topic first. He then left town for the Maryland Association of Counties convention in Ocean City without responding.

The delay in implementing the idea stems partly from Mr. Hayden's preoccupation during much of the winter with the county's fiscal crisis and layoffs. Preparation of the annual budget, which was delayed by planning for the layoffs, followed.

But county government officials say the delay is mostly due to the issue's complexity and a disagreement within the administration over the definition of "affordable homes."

Thomas E. Carski, president of the Baltimore County chapter of the Homebuilders Association of Maryland, said the $110,000-to- price range "is probably close to where the definition [of affordable] is." That's the range of housing sought by young working couples leaving the county for more rural places. Less expensive new housing "just isn't there," said Mr. Carski, explaining that it's almost impossible to find new houses in Baltimore County selling for under $110,000.

Frank W. Welsh, county community development director, believes the definition of affordable housing should be in the $80,000-to-$100,000 range to enable more young people to buy their first homes.

County planning director P. David Fields said that defining affordable housing in the higher price ranges could cause other problems with people worried about growing congestion.

That's because the higher price range would make many more developments eligible for fast processing. People fear that quick approval may mean slipshod government scrutiny and that new developments add to traffic congestion and crowded schools.

To appease those holding such a view, the county's development process was reformed last year to give communities more clout.

Those competing concerns led to the first delay in Mr. Hayden's original plan to offer legislation to create a fast processing track for new businesses and "affordable" housing projects. Selected projects would have been approved in as little as one month.

That plan was scrapped quickly because the County Council opposed the housing portion. Mr. Hayden then created a fast-track policy that would allow approval in 90 days. Criteria for the selection of business projects were developed in February, but the housing portion of the policy never was completed.

On Dec. 8, 1992, Mr. Hayden told the County Council he was worried about demographic changes in the county that showed some young working-age couples -- the people who pay the most taxes -- moving to Harford and Carroll counties and southern Pennsylvania, where detached homes cost less.

"Once they leave, and their kids start growing up, they aren't coming back," he said.

The trend is part of a larger one toward urbanization, even as the county's population changes to include larger groups of the oldest and youngest people. This means less income-tax revenue and more demand for services, especially new schools. Without some effort to retain young workers, it also will be tougher to attract new businesses and their jobs to the county.

Adam Wasserman, deputy director of the county's economic development commission, said that when larger companies look for a new location, they check to see what housing is available for their work force.

Mr. Fields said that because the real estate market is slow, the county might do better by developing incentives to get young families to buy existing homes in older neighborhoods. This would help rejuvenate neighborhoods and prevent blight from taking hold.

"People aren't fleeing for the price of housing," Mr. Fields said, noting concerns about schools, public safety and traffic. He also noted that there was no great movement of people to buy in Baltimore City, which "has plenty of affordable housing."

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