Agenda '99

Goals for the new year

Affordable housing in Howard County

Shortage worsening: `Build-out' of usable land in next 14 years exacerbates existing problem.

January 04, 1999

WINNERS AND losers alike in last fall's elections in Howard County played on fears about development. Residents are afraid the sparkle of suburban living that brought them to Howard County will be tarnished by crowded roads and schools. They worry about who might move into their neighborhoods if houses are "affordable." Yet they also fear that their children won't be able to buy homes in the county when they grow up unless housing prices come down.

In the next year, efforts must be made to alleviate these fears. The new county executive, James N. Robey, and a County Council with mostly freshmen must quickly become teachers spreading the message that fears about growth are misplaced, that existing controls can direct development, and that "affordable" is not a dirty word.

Anxieties are rooted in the tremendous growth that has already occurred in Howard. The county's population has doubled since 1980. It has grown by more than 25 percent since 1990 alone, to its current 235,803 residents. Anyone who has driven one of the county's busy thoroughfares, especially during rush hour, has felt the effects. The boom in school construction reflects that growth.

But the surge is slowing. The 1990 General Plan predicted the county would average 2,500 new residences a year, or 50,000 new houses, by 2010. The county, with 88,121 occupied dwellings, has been averaging 2,000 new housing units a year. And it is running out of developable land.

Much of the western end is protected under the county's agricultural preservation program. The cost of stretching sewer lines makes it too expensive to develop most of the remaining acreage. A lot of that land is also unsuitable for private wells and septic tanks.

Pushed to the max

The planning department believes "build-out" -- the point at which no more land is available for development -- will occur in 14 years. Two huge mixed-use developments are in the pipeline to bring more than 2,000 houses to the North Laurel/Fulton area in the next 10 years. But most residential construction outside those projects will be on small parcels left over from past developments.

County officials must be sensitive to the fears of existing neighborhoods that such "in-fill" development will change the character of their communities. (That is a challenge not just for Howard, but for all counties striving to fulfill the governor's "smart growth" mandate, which prescribes higher densities to make infrastructure more affordable.)

The expected land crunch will further increase the price of property, worsening prospects of affordable housing for low- and middle-income families. A developer who pays $50,000 for a lot doesn't want to build an $80,000 house if customers will pay $300,000.

When the 1990 General Plan was written, county officials anticipated a mix of 55 percent multifamily and 45 percent single-family dwellings. But developers seeking the maximum return on their investment have shunned construction of affordable townhouses and apartments. As a result, the planners' best intentions have been turned upside-down by the marketplace: In Howard, 55 percent of the dwellings are single-family and 45 percent multifamily.

Moreover, Planning Director Joseph Rutter says the dominance of single-family dwellings is likely to increase. Developers have resisted building lower-priced houses even when the county has offered to let them increase the total number of units they can build.

It's not just the money. Neighborhood opposition to development increases when lower-priced housing is proposed.

The county housing department has promoted construction of some affordable housing by subsidizing builders who need upfront capital. The department also helps low-income families buy or rent with federal Section 8 certificates and vouchers.

In the past year, Howard County has provided homes for 212 families who left Baltimore with Section 8 certificates and vouchers. Only Baltimore County helped more families -- 640. In comparison, Anne Arundel County settled 17 Baltimore families; Prince George's County, 9; Montgomery County, 4; Carroll County, 3; and Harford County, 2.

Most of the 7,971 housing certificates and vouchers issued by Baltimore were used in the city. Still, Howard County housing officials have been low-key about their modest efforts. They still have to fight stereotypes that urban immigrants have pathologies that prevent them from adjusting to a suburban lifestyle.

Enhancing communities

County Housing Commissioner Leonard Vaughn says he tries to make sure any family that he places in a Howard community becomes an asset to it by screening Section 8 clients and making follow-up visits to see how they are adjusting to their new homes. The occasional problem does not justify the fear of Section 8 clients that is prevalent.

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