Options sought for moderate housing

Long-debated program changes could reach County Council by fall

Goal is more lower-priced housing units

July 15, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Long-debated changes in Howard County's beleaguered moderate-income housing program could reach the County Council in September or October, according to Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director.

Although the precise changes are not certain, McLaughlin said the idea is to provide options for developers who complain that soaring home prices are making it hard to build moderate-income homes next to townhouses selling for $500,000 and more.

"We don't mind providing flexibility to the development community," said McLaughlin, as long as the county gets more lower-priced housing units in exchange.

For example, a draft of possible changes presented recently to the county's Housing Commission and the Housing and Community Development Board outlined three major ideas.

One would allow developers to pay a fee in lieu of building a new moderate-income house - a fee that would equal twice the market price of a building lot in the main development.

The money, said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, could be used to buy land in another location where a group of moderate-income homes could be built. That way, the county could get more homes to help people being priced out of the market.

Another option would require builders who choose to provide moderately priced homes in locations away from their primary projects to give the county a premium based on a formula. It would require 1.25 to 1.75 new homes be built in other locations for every moderate unit builders are allowed not to build as part of their main project.

County officials also want to stretch the income ceiling for families eligible for moderate-income homes to about $110,000 a year from about $55,000 a year - creating a new, limited, sub-category for two-paycheck families who still cannot afford market rate homes.

Driving the changes are spiraling home prices that last month reached an average of $451,871 in Howard County, the highest in the Baltimore region.

Vaughan said any family making less than $90,000 is virtually priced out of the local market.

"It's getting increasingly difficult for developers. Houses are bigger and bigger," Vaughan told commission and board members at a joint meeting recently.

The high sale prices, along with property taxes and homeowners association fees for luxury amenities, make it tough to include identical units at far less than half the retail price - even though builders get permission for extra homes in exchange for providing some lower-cost units.

An indication of developers' eagerness to find other options surfaced at the joint commission/board meeting, when Vaughan repeated a question he had received: Would renovating a mobile home qualify?

Vaughan said he would consider the idea only if it involved placing a new manufactured home on a lot the resident would own, not rent.

But with Howard's housing prices still rising, "everybody's looking at everything on the table," said Kevin J. Kelehan, housing commission chairman.

As the proposals move closer to becoming legislation, development attorney Richard B. Talkin said he is pushing another approach.

"All the builders are willing to participate in the moderate-income housing program," he said, which awards developers the right to build more homes if they provide a small percentage at a lower price.

Instead of trying to write specific new options into county law, however, Talkin suggested setting the number of moderate units required, and then working out solutions, case by case. If no agreement is reached, the law could provide a default solution.

"The suggestion is to set the parameters and goals for what the department wants in numbers of units over time, and, as each development comes in, work with the developer," he said.

Vaughan rejected that idea.

"In the public interest, it's better that we have some definite standards," he said.

Housing commission and board members appeared open to the mobile home idea, after Vaughan assured them he would not approve renovating an old, metal-skinned mobile home if the idea moves forward.

"Our concern is that they have real value and be maintainable," he said, noting that New Colony Village in Jessup has 270 such units. Those are manufactured homes built in a factory and assembled on site but are indistinguishable from traditional houses once they are constructed.

"I believe there are lots of people who prize mobile homes," said Nancy Rhead, a board member, who added that she thought a new double-wide unit should be required if the mobile home option goes forward.

"I did a development like that in Delaware, and they went like hot cakes," said William A. Ross Jr., another board member.

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