Housing options being floated

Pair of measures would ease building of moderate-income houses, rental units


Howard County's attempt to battle explosive housing inflation by encouraging more lower-priced housing will go on display with the introduction of two bills to the County Council on Monday night.

One measure allows for 100 more one- and two-bedroom, moderate-income units per year in the eastern county, while the other attempts to make the county's law requiring affordable housing more flexible by adding a "middle-income" category and giving builders the option to build units away from their primary developments or pay a cash fee.

The changes are in response to soaring home prices that have made it economically difficult for builders to sprinkle identical, but lower-priced, units amid their market-priced homes and for moderate-income buyers to afford property taxes and community fees.

Leonard S. Vaughan, the county housing director, has promoted the idea of going back to an older idea -- building separate communities of moderate-income homes. He is also advocating more rental housing and cutting the tax burden by allowing buyers to pay taxes on 51 percent to 60 percent of the home they own.

The two council bills represent a delicate balancing act as county planning and housing officials try to do what developers and housing advocates want, while producing more places for limited-income people to live.

A series of citizens committee meetings involving county officials, developers and housing advocacy groups over the past year failed to reach consensus. The bills represent the county government's attempt to find a middle ground.

"There's not a full consensus, but there's enough to go forward," said the Deputy Planning Director Stephen W. Lafferty, who said the county needs to promote housing -- both rental and purchase -- especially for young people entering the work force and first-time homebuyers. The goal, he said, is flexibility and increased production of homes.

As if to emphasize the county's caution, the committee is to meet again next week -- after the bills are formally introduced -- to see whether last-minute changes are necessary. The legislation also requires an annual report, Lafferty noted, so that if problems crop up, changes can be made promptly.

Moderate income covers families in the $35,000 to $60,000 range, while the new middle-income category goes to about $90,000 a year.

Neil Gaffney, deputy county housing director, said the extra 100 units of moderate-income housing provided in one bill would allow some projects to go forward more quickly.

"We've had a plot of land [along U.S. 1] ready to build 10 houses that's been held up four years" waiting for an allocation, he said. Howard County parcels out permission to build using an annual allocation system. Builders must line up for the allocations and then must also pass a separate school-crowding test before they can proceed.

In the proposed changes to the moderate-housing program, the advocates won two points, said Andre J. DeVerneil, who represented a coalition of housing advocacy groups on the committee.

First, he said, the county is no longer suggesting reducing the number of moderate-income units to make room for middle-income housing -- something advocates strongly opposed.

"The fact that it's not there is a win," DeVerneil said.

Second, the bill would define and create the middle-income category, though not yet designating where the units could go. That paves the way for future use of the category, perhaps in a redeveloped Columbia Town Center, he said.

"I commend Marsha [S. McLaughlin, the county planning director] and Steve [Lafferty, the deputy director] for the endurance they have shown because they've been getting grief all over the place," DeVerneil said.

Not all housing advocates agree, however.

William A. Ross Jr., a member of the county Housing Commission, said: "I don't like the term middle- income. I think our focus should be toward low- and moderate-income housing."

John Liparini, president of Brantly Development Group, was less pleased but is still willing to support the legislation, he said.

"There's a lot of merit in the bill. I think it should be seriously considered," he said, adding that there are several aspects that are "disappointing."

For one, builders who want to fulfill their moderate-income housing obligations at another location would have to pay a slightly steeper premium than the committee discussed.

Charts in the bill detail how many more units builders would have to provide on remote locations, compared with the requirement at their primary project.

The exchange ratios range from building 1.5 units elsewhere for every one moderate-income unit not built at the main site, up to paying the county a cash fee equal to double the appraised value of a finished development lot in the main project. In addition, the bill would require builders who want to change housing types -- building townhouses or apartments instead of detached moderate-income homes -- to also provide more units.

"The lower the ratios, the more it would encourage people in the housing industry to look for those alternatives. The higher ratios discourage builders," Liparini said.

The council will hold a public hearing on the bills April 17.


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