Workforce housing crisis

September 26, 2004

NATIONALLY AND locally, home-building companies -- often cast negatively in growth debates -- are now embracing significant aspects of the Smart Growth ethos. Somewhat ironically, that notable shift comes as the residential building industry enjoys very good times. In the unlikely case that you've missed it, home prices across the country, Maryland included, have soared this decade.

But for all its benefits for homeowners and builders, the national housing boom has downsides. Middle-class workers and even two-income families increasingly are being priced out of their communities' housing markets, and this likely will accelerate with the anticipated rise in mortgage rates. Moreover, builders -- particularly in densely populated places with development controls, such as the Baltimore-Washington region -- increasingly can't find sufficient land on which to build to meet population and, critically, job growth.

These are the reasons for the Maryland Coalition for Workforce Housing launched by the Home Builders Association of Maryland. The group's laudable aim is to narrow the vast shortfall in housing affordability for such workers as teachers, police officers and nurses. And here's the best part of it: The coalition is not focusing on building more sprawl in far-flung areas, but on revamping developed areas, where it wants the state to provide counties with more incentives for greater housing densities.

In Maryland -- last year the nation's leader in home price growth -- workforce housing is a quiet but deep crisis. In the Baltimore area, there now is at least a $155,000 housing-value gap between the average price of existing homes and what essential public servants can afford. That means they often can't become a part of the fabric of the communities in which they work, a loss for all residents. In Anne Arundel County, for example, the share of firefighters living outside the county has risen in the last 10 years from 32 percent to more than half -- with some living as far away as Cumberland.

With its new Priority Places program, the Ehrlich administration expresses enthusiasm for redeveloping older communities. But so far, that recasting of Maryland's groundbreaking Smart Growth effort is not backed by any new state funds.

The coalition wants the state to go further by providing financial and other incentives for localities to increase housing densities and lift development controls for infill and redevelopment projects. Incentives are to bolster local officials' political courage in the face of the very strong NIMBY reactions often provoked by such projects. Sadly, that too often remains the biggest obstacle to adequate workforce housing.

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