Proposal would create new housing classification

Officials consider `middle-income' units and fewer moderate-income homes

Advocates voice unease, but not flatly opposed

August 07, 2005|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County would allow developers to build just half the required number of moderate-income homes by substituting units for a new category of higher "middle-income" families - those earning up to $106,200 a year - under a proposal being discussed by county officials, builders and housing advocates.

Although housing advocates express unease with the idea, they do not flatly oppose it at this point.

"Our gut reaction is that we feel very nervous about taking units from a moderate program for a middle program," said Andre J. DeVerneil, one of three volunteers from the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing participating in the session late Thursday.

But DeVerneil added, "We're trying to be flexible and give other options."

County officials did not disagree, but they said they are trying to be realistic.

"The ideal option would have a separate program for middle income, but we don't deal with the ideal," said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director.

County officials also are considering increasing the household incomes eligible for both categories by using Howard County's median family income of $88,500 a year as a base, instead of the Baltimore metropolitan area median of $72,150.

Under the proposed new standards, a family of four with an income of up to $74,350 would be eligible for moderate-income housing, and those with incomes of up to $106,200 would be eligible for middle-income housing.

The moves are part of an attempt to respond to sharply higher home prices that are shutting more families out of the county housing market and making it harder for developers to sprinkle lower-priced units among identical $600,000 townhouses.

The combination of homeowners' fees and property taxes attached to homes in luxury communities can overburden families with incomes up to the current limit of $57,720.

"We want to make the moderate-income housing program stronger and more flexible," said Steve Lafferty, the deputy county planning director.

Builders now must provide from 5 percent to 15 percent of new homes for moderate-income buyers depending on the category of housing, such as mixed-use developments or senior housing.

At the same time, people paying retail prices in these developments are becoming uncomfortable about having neighbors with lower incomes, committee members said.

"Our buyers are very nervous about moderate-income buyers in their community," developer Paul Revelle told the group at Thursday's meeting.

"Those people?" another committee member asked jokingly.

" `Those people,'" Revelle replied.

"A ghetto of county employees," joked Lafferty, referring to the difficulty county teachers, firefighters and police have affording homes where they work.

Vaughan said later that such an attitude is not uncommon in Howard County.

"I get the calls all the time. People call and want to know if there's any `affordable housing' in the neighborhood" where they're thinking of buying a home, he said. "We're not talking about people who don't have means - just not as many means as others," Vaughan said.

Developers have been pushing for alternate ways of satisfying their legal requirements for moderate-income housing, perhaps by giving the county cash instead of building lower-priced homes, while county officials are pushing to get more homes or extra cash back in the trade.

Developers are now required to build moderate-income houses and provide the finished lots free in exchange for being allowed to build more market rate homes.

Developer John Lipparini said he would prefer to have the county set out its goals and let the builders meet them however they can. That would give builders "a chance to be more imaginative."

But Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, appeared to discourage that approach, partly because the county does not have an annual number of units it wants produced. "We want as many units as we can get," she said.

Under the proposals discussed this week, a builder could pay the county twice the market value of a finished lot in lieu of building a moderate-income house, or could build more lower-priced units at some other site instead of building them at their primary development.

Under the formula being discussed, for example, a builder required to build 10 moderate-income homes could opt to build five moderate units and eight middle-income units at another site. These homes might sell for between $250,000 and $300,000. The median price of a home in Howard County in June was nearly $452,000.

The group is to gather again this month to continue work on the changes, which could become County Council legislation this fall.

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