County lacks vision on affordable housing


October 11, 1998|By Harold Jackson

WHAT A conundrum. The concentration of "affordable housing" in Columbia's village of Harper's Choice may be a factor in the amount of crime that occurs there.

But crime in Harper's Choice helps increase fears that block efforts to build more lower-priced houses and apartments in other parts of Howard County.

It should be stressed at the outset that Harper's Choice is not a dangerous place. Walk its streets and you will see children playing and adults jogging carefree along tree-lined sidewalks.

The village may have more apartment complexes than some in Columbia, but the buildings are neat and clean with no visible signs that residents have problems any different from others who live in the county.

After all, even the most exclusive communities have stories of drug abuse and burglaries and teen-agers with too much idle time.

You would expect to hear more of these "problem" stories where there are more people, including densely populated neighborhoods such as Harper's Choice.

The severity of the problems, just like anywhere else in America, can be exacerbated by economic circumstances. Families who don't earn as much don't have as many avenues to either solve their problems or hide them. Whenever something bad happens in Harper's Choice, it's there for all the world to see. Of course, some things are pretty hard to ignore.

Two shootings in 24 hours

The media, including this newspaper, have jumped all over the story of two unrelated shootings that occurred within 24 hours and less than two blocks from each other last month in Harper's Choice. In some Baltimore neighborhoods, people would be celebrating having had only two nonfatal shootings in a day.

That's not to say residents of Harper's Choice should be satisfied with the level of crime there. But life in that village and the rest of Howard County should be placed in the proper perspective.

A headline on an article in The Sun a week ago about the Harper's Choice shootings said such incidents had sullied Columbia founder Jim Rouse's "vision of (the town) as a multicultural hamlet."

I hope people read beyond that headline, which suggested a connection between race and crime to which I certainly don't subscribe.

If they read the entire article, they saw crime statistics totaling 407 police calls for service in the first six months of this year in Harper's Choice.

That compared to 53 police calls in the new River Hill village, which has a much smaller and more affluent population. It is significant that most of the police calls were for "nuisance" crimes such as disorderly conduct and intoxication. But the impact of even those minor violations on a community should not be discounted. They diminish qualify of life.

That's why residents of other areas read with trepidation stories about crime in Harper's Choice and about efforts to disperse more of Howard County's lower-income population among other communities. They fear a reduction in their quality of life.

I take the opposite point of view. Breaking up concentrations of families with similar social problems dilutes their impact on any one area.

It could also reduce the number of families with these types of problems.

Many of us grew up in poor neighborhoods that were within walking distance of nicer houses where wealthier families lived. Their success made us want to prove our worth.

It's easier to see in urban neighborhoods that some children get involved in drugs, some families lapse into dysfunction, because they believe that is the role society has reserved for them.

The same thing can happen in Howard. It can't restrict lower-income families to a few pockets of affordable housing, then wonder why the concentration of the socio-economic problems that generate crime is out of kilter.

Older suburbs that have not effectively dealt with this issue have watched their popularity wane. Neighborhoods allowed to become ghettoes have impacted the quality of life in adjacent communities.

Fears of $100,000 homes

What makes the situation in Howard so galling is that the resistance to "affordable housing" includes not only opposition to apartments and townhouses but to any house under $100,000.

That's a clear message to families that want to move from Baltimore neighborhoods where the average price of a house is $40,000.

It's also a message to teachers, firefighters and police officers who work in Howard County but can't afford to live here. Public servants who live where they work are often more motivated. But that's not possible for many who work for Howard County.

Some developers, including the Rouse Co., have made promises to build more lower-priced houses. But the skimpy number mentioned won't suffice. This lack of vision will lead the county down a road which in the long run threatens all of its property values.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 10/11/98

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