As Howard County officials work on ways to create more housing for working families, advocates for moderate-income housing intend to push the issue as part of next month's weeklong planning session, or charrette, on central Columbia's future.
General Growth Properties, Columbia's developer, has outlined plans for hundreds of new homes and apartments, high-rise towers, stores, restaurants and offices in Town Center.
Leaders of the Coalition for Affordable Housing see the county-sponsored charrette as a chance to be advocates for affordable housing during a process that, if successful, could be used again as Howard County prepares for more growth.
The coalition's goal is for 20 percent of new Town Center living units to be set aside for families with incomes between $30,000 and $100,000 a year - twice the percentage General Growth has talked about.
Marsha S. McLaughlin, the county planning director, said "Town Center is unique" among the county's land-use challenges, but advocates see it differently.
"This is the best opportunity we've got to get moderate- and middle-income housing built in Howard County. If we don't act today, there will be no opportunity," the coalition's Anna Marie Ciarrocchi told about 50 people last week at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.
Andre J. DeVerneil, another coalition volunteer, urged people at the meeting to attend the charrette's first session, at 1 p.m. Oct. 15 at Wilde Lake High School. "We have a key role to play at a seminal, critical time," he said. "This is a huge opportunity."
The coalition leaders presented Jenny LaPorte-Voytko as an example of the problem. LaPorte-Voytko, 39, earns $50,000 a year working for the county's Mental Health Authority as a counselor at the county detention center.
LaPorte-Voytko has been unable to find a house she can afford in the county where she got a master's degree and now works and worships. She rents in Howard, she said, adding that 85 percent of the people who work at the detention center live outside the county.
"I hope everyone here will support affordable housing because I'd like to be your neighbor," she said.
Coalition members DeVerneil, Ciarrocchi and Bob Buckmeier also are participating in a county-sponsored committee of developers, housing and planning officials trying to change the county's moderate-income housing law. They want to adapt it to problems created by soaring home and land prices over the past five years. Last month, for example, the average price of a house in Howard was $455,393.
Laws and zoning
Current law requires 5 percent to 15 percent of homes built in some zones to be moderate-income housing - for people making between $30,000 to $58,000. In exchange, developers get the right to build additional homes.
But Richard Talkin, a development attorney on the county-sponsored committee, argues that the trade-off does not always work. He said topographical problems, environmental issues or community opposition often prevent the full number of homes to be built that the law and zoning will permit.
Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, and McLaughlin are thinking about proposing a higher, "middle-income" category of housing for people making up to $100,000 a year. Builders want the flexibility to shift their moderate- or middle-income units to other sites, likely along the U.S. 1 corridor in Elkridge.
Buckmeier questioned that idea, warning that concentrating such homes in certain areas could result in the social stigma often attached to subsidized housing - a claim the county housing director rejected.
Developers, meanwhile, seem leery of county officials' desire to set in county law a specific schedule of home prices based on mortgage interest rates that could fluctuate.
Still, some developers at the recent meeting said they want to solve the problems and move forward on the affordable-housing issue.
"We've all been fortunate. It's not like we're in the poorhouse. Everybody's making money, so we all should be able to find a solution," said developer John Liparini.