Officials' plan for affordable homes stalled

Limit reached on houses allowed under growth law

Restrictions are cause, some say

30 units are proposed for 7 acres near Guilford

July 14, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

A clash of interests is forcing a difficult question on prosperous Howard County: Is it more important to tightly control growth or to provide new homes that middle-income people can afford? So far, growth control is winning.

Affordable housing has been Howard County Executive James N. Robey's most elusive goal, but county housing officials readying plans to build 30 lower-priced detached, single-family homes near U.S. 1 in Guilford find themselves blocked until 2006 by county laws limiting the number of homes (about 300) allowed in the southeastern county each year.

The homes proposed by Leonard S. Vaughan, county housing director, would sell for $150,000 each in a county in which the average new-home price last month was $273,478. The county recently bought a 7-acre tract for $786,000, but the project must wait.

The southeastern county was the subject of public scrutiny during the 1990s because the area's open land represents the end of Howard's fast-growth era. The first homes are rising on what will become three densely populated, mixed-use developments. Cherrytree, Emerson and Maple Lawn Farms will contain moderate-income subsidized homes, but will force a delay in Vaughan's project.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., county planning director, believes that delay is unavoidable and should not be changed.

"There's a balance," he said. "Children who live in houses that are provided through an affordable housing program shouldn't be in overcrowded schools. When you start making exceptions, where does it stop?"

Some say the county is caught in a vicious circle because growth controls limit the amount of land and thus the number of new homes, which drives up home prices. That in turn prices civil servants and other middle-income earners out of the market.

Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of the Rouse Co., which is developing Emerson - a large, mixed-use project in the southeastern area where housing officials want to build their project - said the county can't have things both ways.

"That whole concept [of limiting growth] drives up the prices," he said. "If I were a cynic, which I am not, I would say those [residents] who said `no growth - raise the drawbridge' have a double win. The drawbridge [to Howard] has been narrowed, and they have increased their appreciation of their investment. The poor person who hasn't gotten in is the loser."

Slow-growth advocates doubt even the concept of government lowering the price of new homes.

"That's a market function. Developers love to use affordable housing as a reason to increase density," said John Taylor, a community activist who said people should buy what they can afford - without taxpayer help.

"I don't think there is any emergency. I don't think every family in this county has a right to live in a single, detached house," said Peter Oswald, a south county activist who opposed the large, mixed-use developments rising in his area.

The 30 detached subsidized homes cannot be built because the county's complex growth-control laws have granted permission for all the homes allowable for the next few years.

The law requires builders to obtain a housing "allocation" before moving forward with government processing. A second tier of the system can delay builders again if area elementary and middle schools are too crowded. The new county General Plan reduced the annual average ceiling on new-home construction from 2,500 in the 1990s to 1,500 until 2020.

Robey is not ready to exempt the subsidized homes from regulations.

"Any time you set government apart, it's dangerous," he said. "I'm very concerned that Howard County is exempt from all the statutes we place on everything else."

Robey said he is considering the issue, however, and has not made a decision about whether to take action.

So far, County Council members and community slow-growth advocates support Robey's reluctance to act. Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, noted that he suggested adding 250 units of affordable housing to the allocations allowed under the new 2000 General Plan, but his proposal was rejected.

Scavo said the citizens committee on growth controls on which he served also discussed such an exemption, but rejected the idea.

The issue cuts across party lines, with Republicans and Democrats opposed to making an exception to the county's growth controls.

"I think we have a responsibility to make sure we have the schools and the roads. That's the purpose of our Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance," said Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Democrat who represents the southeastern county, where the subsidized homes will be built.

"Some of the houses in the pipeline are for moderate-income people," he noted, referring to homes in the large developments planned for the North Laurel-Fulton area.

County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, agreed. "I would not want to make an exception for government that you don't make for business," he said.

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