Arundel's affordable housing bill falters

GOP council members opposed to measure

October 10, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Despite acknowledging a shortage of "work force housing" in the county, Anne Arundel leaders are poised to kill a bill that would require builders to set aside more affordable units at new developments.

The bill, introduced by County Council members Barbara D. Samorajczyk of Annapolis and Pamela G. Beidle of Linthicum, both Democrats, would require developers to devote 10 percent of each new subdivision to more affordable houses and townhouses. In return, developers would be allowed to build more units. The bill is set for a vote Oct. 18.

Samorajczyk and Beidle argue that such a requirement, modeled on a 30-year-old program in Montgomery County, is the only way to force builders to accommodate middle-class buyers.

National housing experts say communities across the nation are embracing similar programs.

"We think inclusionary zoning, when properly done, is an important tool in creating affordable housing for the work force," said Conrad Egan, director of the National Housing Conference, a Washington-based housing policy center. "It's a very good concept, because it goes with the flow of development."

But County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat, says the bill would create costly bureaucracy without creating many affordable homes.

The four Republicans who make up a majority of the County Council have also expressed reservations about the bill. Some oppose it outright, while others say they want to amend it to remove mandates.

Developers say the bill's requirements would be onerous and create pockets of cheap, dense housing in upscale subdivisions, where they don't belong.

"I think it's going to be an uphill struggle for that bill," said Council President C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican.

Beidle said Friday she was anticipating defeat.

"I'm disappointed. It looks like it will take a real crisis to create change," she said. "Every year we wait is another lost opportunity to provide 150 to 200 affordable homes for our workers."

Anne Arundel homes sold at an average price of $292,000 last year, and prices in the county have risen faster than in any other part of the Baltimore area. For police, firefighters and teachers making between $35,000 and $60,000 a year, those prices are too high, Samorajczyk and Beidle say. Researchers say a family generally can afford a house priced at three times its annual income.

They have worked on the bill -- geared toward families of four earning $54,000 a year -- all year, seeking support from developers and helping organize a tour of upscale Montgomery County communities that feature pockets of work force housing.

Several governments in the region -- Howard and Montgomery counties in Maryland, Fairfax County and Alexandria in Virginia -- require developers to mix cheaper homes into their projects. They also offer low-interest loans and other financial incentives to homebuyers.

"I don't know how our employees would ever be able to afford a home otherwise," said Vola Lawson, a former Alexandria city manager who helped create work force housing programs in the early 1980s.

But the concept of forcing developers to include affordable units in every project has not gained wide support in more conservative Anne Arundel.

Owens said such policies might have worked if they had been put in place near the beginning of a housing boom that began in the 1960s and is now winding down because of a lack of open land.

"It's like it's a little too late," said Owens, a Democrat who drew significant financial support from developers in her last re-election campaign in 2002. "We need to be coming up with more creative, innovative ways to address the problem."

Owens said the county should focus on marketing older areas such as Brooklyn Park and Glen Burnie to first-time and moderate-income homebuyers. She also favors incentives to help such buyers with down payments and closing costs.

"I think there's more work force housing available than what is publicly acknowledged," she said. "It's probably just not available in Annapolis, Severna Park or Broadneck."

Housing advocates support neighborhood revitalization and incentives for young homebuyers, but they say such measures must be paired with zoning requirements to make a dent in work force housing shortages.

"I don't think it's an either-or situation," Egan said.

Opponents of the bill also argue that the housing market will create more affordable options on its own.

Owens said developers will inevitably turn to redeveloping older areas once they run out of land to build new, high-end subdivisions. She said homebuyers also should moderate their expectations.

With housing prices having soared, Middlebrooks agreed that many residents are unrealistic in desiring new houses in the county's most expensive areas.

"Why do people need brand-new houses?" Middlebrooks asked. "When we were starting out, most of us started in smaller houses."

The council president said he also has a philosophical objection to forcing private developers to build certain kinds of housing.

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