Vote due on housing plan

Bill would advance efforts to construct moderate-income units at 3 county sites


Howard County developers are prepared to build 291 units of affordable rental housing under a proposed change in county law if a tabled bill is revived and approved by the County Council Monday.

The legislation represents a major change in county housing policy.

Instead of sprinkling identical moderate-income units amid increasingly high-priced developments, the bill would allow construction of separate communities of lower-priced townhouses and apartments - something housing advocates fear will create economic segregation.

The bill would allow builders to construct required moderate-income homes at locations away from their primary project - with county approval. In exchange, the builders would provide either more units or pay a premium in cash.

"What I'm hoping is that it will accelerate housing for working people in this county," said county housing director Leonard S. Vaughan.

Skyrocketing land costs have made it difficult for moderate-income buyers - families making between $36,000 and $66,000 - to afford even subsidized units sprinkled among high-priced homes selling for $700,000 or more. The property taxes and condominium fees alone can equal or exceed the mortgage payment.

Despite their fears, the two most active groups dropped opposition to the bill last month after meeting with County Executive James N. Robey and Vaughan.

The groups, the African American Coalition of Howard County and the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, won Robey's agreement to appoint and staff a citizens task force this month to study the county's housing problems and report by November, just before he leaves office.

They want a comprehensive approach to the problems associated with providing affordable housing for working families in a county where the average home sale price is over $400,000. The bill would also drop any mention of a new "middle income" category of people eligible for help and eliminate minimum income eligibility.

Some County Council members have felt pulled in different directions, too.

West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman said he is comfortable with the compromise and predicted the bill would pass but noted he has had doubts in the past.

"On one hand, I'm pleased to see that folks want a more comprehensive look at it. On the other hand, I'm interested in seeing projects move forward," he said.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he wants to study the amendments before deciding how he'll vote.

Vaughan persuaded the Housing Commission, including William A. Ross Sr., who also is a member of the African American Coalition, to endorse the embattled bill. Still, Ross grumbled that "we're turning the process of economic integration around."

Ross questioned what such a policy will bring 30 or 40 years from now. Others noted that housing provided under the bill would be affordable for civil servants and other middle-class families - people the county needs to provide vital services.

If the council approves the bill, Vaughn said, it would enable the county to provide 127 moderate-income rental apartments, instead of 103 under current law, as part of a 320-unit development on U.S. 1 where the old Elkridge Drive-in movie once stood.

Another project would see 106 rental apartments for seniors built on Route 108 and Falls Run Road, about a half-mile from Howard High School. That 4-acre site may be purchased for the Housing Commission by Greenebaum and Rose, developers of Maple Lawn, as a way of fulfilling the firm's promise to provide 100 units of moderate-income housing, Vaughan said.

The County Council, acting as the zoning board, agreed to allow those 100 units to be built away from the expensive multi-use project going up now in Fulton, a deal Housing Commission member Michael G. Riemer characterized as "letting [developers] off the hook."

The third project would provide 53 units of moderate-income rental apartments in western Ellicott City, south of U.S. 40. All three would represent moderate-income dwellings moved away from primary developments where the economics won't work.

"The beauty of this is that instead of units spread out over five or six years, we will be getting units pretty quickly" that working families can afford, Vaughan said.

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