The need for affordable housing Broad impact: Too much in some areas, too little in others, leave workers far from jobs.

January 07, 1998

IN CARROLL COUNTY, where the median price of a house is $156,000 and townhomes and apartments are virtually nonexistent, young families are migrating into Pennsylvania in search of affordable places to live.

Retailers in Howard County complain that they can't find sales clerks and other low-wage workers. The median house price is $165,500, so entry-level employees and even mid-level managers that businesses seek can't afford to live there.

Numerically, plenty of affordable housing in the Baltimore region. The trouble is it's concentrated in the city and the older suburbs.

The Baltimore region faces a serious housing problem. For a long time, the need for affordable housing was met by the city and, later, Baltimore County. Jobs were concentrated in the urban area. Middle-class families lived nearby. They felt secure doing so. Young families routinely moved from the counties to city neighborhoods to get started. That pattern has reversed itself in recent decades as people in cities all over the United States have fled to the suburbs.

Hence, it no longer works to have affordable housing concentrated in urban areas; the loss of stable middle-class population has caused those communities to decline past the point of desirability, sustaining a pattern of increasing outmigration. Jobs have moved outward, too, lured by low taxes, good services and a burgeoning suburban marketplace.

Without affordable housing nearby, folks without the means to commute, who could stock shelves at Wal-Mart, manage a Pizza Hut or work as bank tellers and clerks, cannot take advantage of these opportunities. Others congest the roads trying to do so.

At this point, efforts to achieve a healthy mix of housing are limited and local. In Baltimore County, Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has made revitalization of the older suburbs a top priority. But it matters little if the tide eventually turns in Baltimore County, unless the city makes parallel changes. And prospects of the city turning itself around are bleak because its tax base has eroded and it isn't so attractive to businesses that would help restore it.

Also, it is difficult for people living in Howard, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Harford to see that more affordable housing would benefit them. They usually view fair housing measures as way to help "the poor" at their expense. Large-lot zoning effectively keeps out all but the well-heeled.

Tasha Harmon, executive director of the Community Development Network in Portland, says she makes the most headway with opponents of affordable housing in Oregon when she reminds them that prospective residents "could be your kids, after they become young adults and want to stay in their old neighborhood. They could be your parents, who have sold their house after 50 years and have to move out of their community because there aren't any apartments."

The most highly touted model in the nation in support of affordable housing is next door -- in Montgomery County. It is, as Marylanders know, one of the wealthiest counties in the country with a median house price of more than $300,000.

For more than 20 years, builders of developments with more than 50 homes in Montgomery have been required to construct a portion at moderate prices. In exchange, they receive a "density bonus." That means they can build a few extra homes than zoning would normally allow. The county purchases some of the units to rent to low-income tenants; these are scattered in homes or townhomes that are indistinguishable from the rest of the housing mix.

Builders, who initially opposed the program, have found it profitable. Neighborhood opposition has been all but non-existent because the impact on individual communities is low.

Quality of life in Montgomery remains among the highest in Maryland. Howard County's council came one vote short of approving a similar program several years ago. Such an initiative could still make increasingly exclusive Howard affordable to a variety of people, or diversify the housing stock in Carroll.

Regulation isn't the only solution. Employers and pro-business organizations can exert region-wide pressure on developers to supply affordable housing where workers are needed. Banks can socially responsible, giving lending priority to developers who offer a mix of housing types.

Altruism is not the issue. Cultivating thriving, functioning communities everywhere, not merely in selected pockets of the region, is the reason for ensuring and distributing affordable housing.

Next: Tax-sharing makes sense

Montgomery's model

Montgomery County's moderately priced dwelling unit policy requires developments of more than 50 units to include:

* 85 percent of units sold at market prices.

* 10 percent sold as "affordable housing" (sold or rented to households whose income is no more than 80 percent of county's median, currently $70,000.)

* 5 percent may be bought by housing authority for low-income residents.

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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