Panel: Senior housing needed

Task force advises change in zoning laws, incentives

Howard County

July 09, 2004|By Jen DeGregorio | Jen DeGregorio,SUN STAFF

A Howard task force is seeking to reconcile the increasing need for senior housing with the county's growth limits by recommending measures like zoning changes, incentives for homeowners and developers, and a change in attitude toward senior developments.

The task force completed a draft of the Senior Housing Master Plan this week and hopes to present the final plan to the County Council by September. The draft calls for an increase in the number of senior homes allowed under the growth limit, more moderately priced housing, a decrease in the size of property allowed to be developed, tax credits for builders and other incentives to encourage senior housing development.

"The biggest question that we have facing us ... is do we have enough senior housing?" said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone. "And do we have the right mix of senior housing?"

The task force spelled out the housing crisis facing Howard's seniors in coming years. The number of people 55 and older is projected to increase by more than 46,000 during the next 25 years - a boom the county is not equipped to handle.

Too few homes

Last year, the county had 1,866 housing units in senior apartment complexes or in active adult developments, while assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and a continuing-care community provided 2,248 beds. An additional 2,800 units have been approved for construction but are still under review.

But the county growth limits allow only 1,500 new housing units each year, 250 of which are reserved for seniors.

Those numbers cannot accommodate the more than 50,000 seniors projected to live in Howard by next year.

The proposed master plan recommends higher-density housing for senior complexes. County zoning law requires senior complexes to have a minimum of 50 units, but the task force is proposing that developers be allowed to build with as few as 20 units, which would make more sites available for such projects.

The task force is also recommending that the county increase the number of new units it must set aside for senior housing and designate a higher percentage of those as moderately priced housing.

Senior housing had never been an issue before in Howard County, where more than 52 percent of the population is between 20 and 54, Guzzone said. Most of the county's housing was built after 1970 - when Howard was undergoing rapid growth as a suburban community - and designed primarily for families with children.

Howard County's General Plan 2000 found that the county is exhausting available land to develop. Most of the recent development - large, luxury homes costing between $350,000 and $600,000 - does not appeal to seniors, Guzzone said. He said retirees on fixed incomes cannot afford to keep those luxury homes, and seniors with physical limitations or disabilities find them impractical.

The task force's draft noted that seniors prefer single-level homes with lower maintenance needs - rarities in Howard. It also said seniors prefer to "age in place." A study done last year by the county's Commission on Aging found that 80 percent of people 60 and older and 70 percent of those 50 and older want to stay in Howard after retirement.

`People want to stay'

Michael Davis, a member of both the aging commission and the master plan task force, said he was baffled by those results.

"It was the exact opposite of what we had thought about this county," he said. "We thought this was a transitional county, you know, people coming and going. But people want to stay."

"We need this group of people in the county," Davis said. Seniors provide more money in taxes than they use in services, he said, as well as participate in volunteer organizations and maintain the county's institutional memory.

But not every community embraces senior housing. A group of angry residents managed in March to squash the construction of 30 homes for active seniors in Ellicott City, arguing that the development would disrupt the community and "not fit in" with its neighborhood of single-family houses.

Steve Lafferty, deputy county planning director, said advisory boards could help to promote senior housing.

Lafferty called senior housing "a collective work," saying that it "can only succeed with all facets of the community working together."

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