Howard County politics threaten housing effort Anti-growth mood might hurt proposals for affordable homes

December 13, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County housing agencies are embarking on a campaign to increase housing for low- to moderate-income families and the elderly, but some advocates worry that public attitudes against residential growth might hamstring some of their proposals.

After watching local political candidates ride to victory in November on an apparent wave of anti-growth sentiment, housing officials are aware that any push for new affordable housing will face opposition.

Advocates say it is crucial they educate the public about the need for more affordable housing in the next year, as county officials draw up the next General Plan for future development.

Little land left

With few town homes and apartments being built in Howard County, and little land left to be developed, the decisions to be made on housing could help determine whether the county will more closely resemble Columbia, with its blend of incomes as envisioned by founder James W. Rouse, or a wealthy enclave with little room for middle-class families.

"We don't have enough housing to meet the growth in [low- and moderate-income] populations," Leonard S. Vaughan, executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission and director of the Housing and Community Development Board, said at a meeting Thursday of the two agencies. "Are we saying that our kids, when they grow up, are going to have to leave the county?"

Officials agreed at the meeting to make proposals on housing to Democratic County Executive James N. Robey and the Democratic-led County Council. Many of the recommendations probably will not raise opposition, such as measures aimed at reducing crime and improving property values in deteriorating neighborhoods to make houses there more appealing to working-class homebuyers.

Advocates also want to build more housing for seniors, which they say might have detractors but must be dealt with as Columbia's baby boomers age.

Several proposals to create affordable housing are expected to draw more adamant opposition:

Passing a law requiring developments of 40 or more units to set aside at least 10 percent as moderately priced, unless developers build moderately priced homes elsewhere or make a payment to a county fund. The law would reward developers with an increase in homes allowed per acre if they build moderately priced units.

This plan is largely the same proposal unsuccessfully pushed by housing advocates and Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray in the early 1990s. "Moderately priced" means homes affordable to families with incomes of about $50,000 a year.

Changing zoning to allow more high-density residential development.

Expanding the number of "mixed-use" zoning areas -- large residential and commercial sites that tend to include more moderately priced homes.

Some members of the two agency boards, while supporting the proposals, expressed concerned about how such ideas will be received.

Impact of growth

Many homeowners are concerned about the impact of growth on their roads and schools. Moreover, in some zoning disputes, homeowners have protested that building affordable housing nearby might lower their property values.

Republicans Allan H. Kittleman of western Howard and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City were elected on a platform of slowing homebuilding. They say there is enough affordable housing in the county, arguing that hundreds of homes each year are listed for $100,000 or less, and are inclined to oppose any requirement that developers build moderately priced units.

Robey and the council's Democrats also say the county must manage growth better. But they made campaign promises to increase affordable housing for workers such as teachers, police officers and firefighters.

Guy J. Guzzone, a newly elected Democrat, embodies the conflict between slowing growth and increasing affordable housing. His past leadership of the state Sierra Club and his opposition to a Rouse Co. project in North Laurel won him credibility in his southeast Howard district as a champion of managed growth.

At the same time, he says he wants more moderately priced housing, which is rarely built but will be included in the very Rouse Co. project he opposes.

Robey talked during his campaign about the need for affordable housing for county employees, but he has avoided endorsing any proposals. He didn't return telephone calls Friday seeking comment on the issue.

Howard's new single-family homes are by far the most expensive in the Baltimore metropolitan area, with an average price of $273,600, according to Meyers Housing Data Reports, which tracks new-home activity.

Vaughan and members of the Housing Commission and the Housing and Community Development Board realize that their ideas for new affordable housing might get swamped by criticism from slow-growth activists, but they hope to win support by courting other interest groups and the public.

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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