Affordable housing is becoming more scarce Funding cuts, bias are blamed for trend

November 12, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

It's always been tough for poor people and those with moderate incomes to find homes in wealthy Howard County. In the future, it may be nearly impossible.

State and federal funding is evaporating. And there is a growing bias against such housing from people who see it as a cause of traffic congestion or a source of drugs, crime and declining property values.

For poor people, entry-level workers or those of moderate income, a home in Howard usually has meant a rental unit -- either in a public housing project or an apartment complex.

But managers of public housing projects are beginning to impose strict rules on tenants and put increased emphasis on maintenance and appearance. And commercial apartment construction has become so expensive that no apartment development has been built in Howard County without federal or state assistance in 10 years.

That market is likely to get even tighter, real estate and housing experts say.

State and federally assisted housing programs -- subsidies for the nonworking poor and tax incentives for the working poor and people of moderate income -- are under attack, says Leonard S. Vaughan, executive director of the county Office of Housing and Community Development.

"It is quite possible to see no [affordable] housing production in three or four years," he says. Meanwhile, "we're going to be hard-pressed to maintain our existing stock."

His view is affirmed by Mark Sissman, president of the Enterprise Social Investment Corp., a Columbia-based organization that helps provide affordable housing capital by using the federal low-income housing tax credit.

"We shouldn't kid ourselves," Mr. Sissman says. "There will be fewer opportunities to house the poor, without question. We're seeing a radical rethinking of housing policy at the national level."

The problem is that in Howard -- one of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States -- land is so expensive that someone earning $53,340 a year is considered to have a moderate income.

Such a person would be eligible to participate in a county low-interest loan program designed to help pay closing costs for buyers who have not owned residential property in the preceding three years.

According to the latest list of economic indicators published by the county and the Economic Forum, the average sale price of a single-family dwelling in the county is $193,278. The average price of a condominium is $102,484.

Meanwhile, the cost of living in the county's 8,000 subsidized rental units -- scattered mostly in Columbia and the eastern portion of the county -- is rising. As a result, the poorest tenants are having to move to cheaper quarters elsewhere or become homeless.

Most of the housing assistance being offered wage earners is to people with incomes of $16,000 to $35,000 a year. That kind of assistance is essential if the county is to attract employers or provide housing for service-industry workers and entry-level professionals, officials say.

If subsidies and tax benefits are cut at the state and national level -- and Mr. Vaughan and Mr. Sissman believe they will be -- the poorest people will suffer most, they say.

What was once affordable housing will become "market-driven," Mr. Vaughan says, and the very poor will not be able to pay with higher rents. The number of homeless is likely to increase.

Providing new affordable housing for credit-worthy people with incomes higher than $16,000 is "like putting together a gazillion-piece jigsaw puzzle," says County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of west Columbia.

Even the suggestion of cuts to federal and state housing programs could discourage developers interested in such projects, she says.

"They are less likely to put in the time, effort and costs if they are worried that the whole project may fall apart at the 11th hour. That's a real concern," she says.

Adding to that concern is that the county will not be able to pick up the slack, County Executive Charles I. Ecker says.

An even more formidable obstacle may be the public's opposition to increasing the county's stock of subsidized units.

Three years ago, for example, Mr. Ecker and County Councilman C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia proposed adding 250 units a year of affordable housing, only to be turned down by the County Council.

The proposal, modeled after a successful Montgomery County program, would have required developers to sell some of their new homes at below market rates in return for a 20 percent increase in the number of units they could build on a given site.

Council members, who were besieged at the time by slow- and no-growth advocates, opposed that.

Then-Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass of Kings Contrivance summed up the feelings of the council majority: "Trading single-family detached houses for townhouses is more than I'm willing to do," she said at the time.

Earlier this year, in Columbia, the once-sacrosanct philosophy of mixing housing types in a neighborhood came under attack from Long Reach residents.

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