Searching for solutions

Creative strategies, policy changes, focused planning could help avert shortage

Sun Special Report

July 24, 2006|By JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS | JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS,SUN REPORTER

Travel to a run-down stretch of Ritchie Highway for one answer to the Baltimore region's looming housing shortage. The long-boarded-up shops of Southview Shopping Center in Anne Arundel County are set to give way to homes starting at more than $300,000.

Land alongside the highly commercialized route might seem an odd place for builders to zero in on for new houses. But downtown Baltimore is five miles north, the airport's five miles southwest and Interstate 695 is just a jog away.

An Ellicott City developer, seeing the location's potential and hampered by lack of land elsewhere, plans to start site work next year. Sick of the eyesore and the accompanying vagrants and vandals, county officials are welcoming the new homes as a blessing rather than a budgetary curse.

Now would be an ideal time for the region to embrace similar creative strategies - and lots of them, experts say.

Baltimore and its five suburban counties could be facing a shortage of 20,000 homes in four years, a Sun analysis of official job and household forecasts showed. By 2030, the shortfall would reach 100,000 homes. A mismatch of that magnitude could trigger a recession, experts say, or an equally troublesome future where tens of thousands of workers are forced into punishing, hours-long commutes.

But it doesn't have to be so. Land-use professionals, smart-growth proponents, academics and others suggest a variety of ways to avert a head-on collision between solid job growth and increasingly restrictive homebuilding regulations.

Old suburban strip centers, boarded-up city blocks, vast parking lots, empty land around transit stations - all could be transformed into compact housing developments so workers don't have to live far from their jobs, they say. Adding substantially to the supply also could provide more starter houses.

But most of the potential fixes have a common denominator, experts agree: They can't happen without changes to local policies and the political will to make those changes.

`Regulatory regimes'

"There seems to be an assumption that metropolitan growth patterns are the result of a free market," said Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Nothing can be further from the truth. It's the regulatory regimes in place that are actually causing this development and growth to happen. ... There is a real opportunity to do something different."

County regulations stand in the way of some solutions to the mismatch between employment and housing. If the suburbs are going to take not only the job growth but also the workers, they would need to welcome denser homebuilding in some areas instead of trying to keep it out. That's because, absent rezoning, much of the suburban land where homes are permitted will be used up by 2030, planners say. The counties would also have to plan better so they are not frequently halting development, either with moratoriums or ordinances that block construction near crowded schools.

Other roadblocks are problems borne of poverty and disinvestment. Dilapidated schools. Crime. Abandoned sections of already-developed neighborhoods, sometimes owned by people who can't be tracked down. These are the challenges in Baltimore City - which covets growth after years of decline - and to some extent also in old suburban communities.

None of the various changes would be easy. Attacking blight is expensive. Proposing dense development in the burbs can be politically disastrous. But continuing on the same path also has consequences. Residents need to know where the region is headed if trends continue, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a smart-growth advocacy group.

"One of the things we need to be asking citizens is, `OK, is this what you want?'" she said.

Right now, politicians in the suburbs see few reasons to change the number of homes that can be built - other than to make reductions. Population growth is a budgetary headache, often requiring wider roads, more schools and other expensive infrastructure. It can overtax water supply and sewage treatment. Plus, voters hate it.

The city, on the other hand, seeks growth and has the infrastructure to handle it. But Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Baltimore-based Citizens Planning and Housing Association, says revitalization won't "just happen."

"There's got to be significant investment in those neighborhoods," he said.

Funding solution

Howard County Councilman Guy Guzzone, who like many suburban leaders does not want faster growth in his county, has a solution for the city's redevelopment funding needs: redistribute a portion of state money that is now flowing to the suburbs.

"We have to be willing to forgo some state funding in an effort to allow other jurisdictions - the city, in particular - to absorb more density so we don't have to," he said.

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