Council tweaks bill on affordable housing

`Middle-income' reference likely to be cut

panel's vote on measures delayed


A Howard County Council bill designed to boost affordable housing likely will drop references to a proposed "middle-income" group of families earning up to $90,000 a year while referring only to low-income eligibility.

Despite a seeming consensus on that issue, a scheduled Monday night vote on two housing bills probably will be delayed one month, council members said, so they can further consider the complex topic. The second housing bill would allow an extra 100 moderate-income units a year in the eastern county, which drew no objections.

The council also is expected at Monday's meeting to table a Republican-sponsored bill to ban smoking in public places by July 2008. A newer, Democrat-sponsored version with a shorter, one-year enforcement deadline is to be formally introduced Monday night.

The council might vote, however, on a third housing bill that would authorize a free- or reduced-rent program for some county police officers who volunteer to live in higher-crime areas.

The primary housing bill sought to define a new middle-income category of families, but not create a program to help them buy homes. That would come later, county officials said, perhaps when the final plan for redeveloping downtown Columbia is completed.

The middle-income category "has confused a lot of people," council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said at a council work session this week.

"Why are we talking about it? I have the same concerns as my colleagues," said west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman.

Merdon and Ulman are candidates for county executive.

"I, too, have a problem with middle income," said western county Republican Charles C. Feaga.

Including higher-income families in housing programs is designed to deal with the situation created by soaring home prices over the past five years. Advocates say a family with an income of $84,000 a year is able to qualify for a mortgage of $245,000, but that includes only 5 percent of county homes for sale.

Council members said that because the bill merely defines the new category in the law and does not implement a program for that income range, middle income could be dropped for now without consequence.

Housing advocates and county planners want the redevelopment of central Columbia to include units affordable to middle- income households earning from $65,000 to $90,000, as well as to those making less.

"We prefer to keep it in [the bill]" Deputy County Planning Director Stephen Lafferty told the council.

County Housing Director Leonard S. Vaughn told council members that there are no federal or state programs available for families with incomes over $65,000.

"There is a reality that at $90,000 or $100,000 [income] a year, your choice of housing is very limited," Vaughan said.

Developers who worked on a citizens committee to help draft the bill said at least the concept of helping middle-income buyers was discussed.

"It advanced the conversation," said developer Paul Revelle.

Andre J. DeVerneil, a housing advocate who also worked on the housing bill, said, "I'm disappointed. There is the need out there."

At Merdon's urging, Vaughan agreed that eliminating the minimum income eligibility could allow help for more people - such as the rare case of a family with a low income but enough cash from an inheritance or insurance policy to afford a middle-income home. Merdon also suggested that the county make applicants for housing programs get prequalified approval to participate in housing programs from private banks instead of having county workers do the screening.

Howard's existing law requires that developers working in certain land-use zones provide a percentage of units as moderate-income homes to people with incomes between $36,000 and $65,000 a year. Currently, a buyer in that range would pay $158,000 for a moderate-income townhouse. The county Housing Commission would pay the rest of the builder's cost of the home, and would own up to 49 percent of the unit.

The bill would make that program more flexible, allowing builders who showed hardship to move their moderate-income units to another site or to pay a fee in lieu of building the homes. Advocates for the changes argue that soaring inflation and higher taxes and condominium fees that accompany high-priced developments make it impossible to continue building lower-priced but identical units amid homes selling for $700,000 or more.

The police-housing bill, which is subject to an ethics review once rules for the program are established, would allow landlords to offer reduced or free rent to officers who volunteer to perform extra security duties where they live.

Ulman sponsored the bill and said officials of Kimco Realty Corp., a New York firm that owns several of Columbia's village centers, have told him they would love to have a county officer living in one of several apartments above Harper's Choice Village Center, for example. To prevent an officer from feeling obligated to a landlord, the bill requires extra security duties for anyone volunteering for the benefit. Ulman said 10 county officers have expressed interest.

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