Deadline looms for housing task force

Recommendations are due by Oct. 31 on how to solve the affordable-dwellings problem

September 22, 2006|by a sun reporter

With a deadline little more than a month away, a 25-member task force continues to examine vigorously one of the most profound and vexing problems facing the county -- the acute shortage of housing for low- and middle-income earners.

The complexity of its work is underscored by the fact that it knows neither the scope of the problem today nor what it will be in the future, and by the admission that unanimity among the sharply diverse group might be impossible.

Nonetheless, quantifying the need remains a goal, because without pinpointing the problem the hope of winning broad support for its recommendations becomes more difficult.

And the task force, appointed three months ago by County Executive James N. Robey, will make formal recommendations when it submits its final report, its chairman, attorney Kevin J. Kelehan, said.

That report, he said, must be to Robey no later than by Halloween.

"We want this to be a living document, not a doorstop," Kelehan said after the task force met Tuesday night, acknowledging that it will be a new county executive and County Council that most likely will consider the group's recommendations because the November general election will result in almost a complete turnover of the county's top elected officials. "We all felt that we should give it to somebody, whoever that is. Something to work with."

The task force has two subcommittees. One is studying resources and impediments, while the second is examining needs and goals. Those will meet again twice, as will the full task force.

Kelehan said he hopes that a draft of the subcomittees' reports will be ready in three weeks when the task force reassembles.

Although the task force does not know the extent of the affordable-housing problem, no one doubts that it exists. And it threatens the economic diversity that officials regard as vital to the county, says a working paper prepared by one of the subcommittees and presented Tuesday night.

"The high quality of life in Howard County has its roots in the economic diversity of our indigenous work force," says the paper. "... Progressively, we have been diminishing this advantage by moving toward a less economically inclusive housing stock. At the same time, the need for low-income service employees has remained steady, and the cost of transporting the workers we need from elsewhere is spiraling upward."

The task force concedes that there is neither a single nor simple solution, thus its final report is expected to include an array of recommendations.

One concept suggested Tuesday was the creation of community land trusts, which perpetually restrict the original and resale prices of a home.

James J. Kelly Jr., a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said the land trusts "make land and housing available to residents who cannot otherwise afford them."

The key to such programs, Kelly said, is to ensure that the homes remain affordable even after the original homeowners sell their properties.

They must enter into "legally enforceable" promises that "they will sell the house at an affordable price to a qualifying household," he said.

L. Earl Armiger, founder and chief executive officer of Orchard Development Corp. and a member of the task force, provided a glimpse at some of the recommendations that may be proffered, although he stressed that they are subject to change. Among them are:

Permitting greater density, or the number of homes per acre. Developers have long insisted that skyrocketing land costs in the county make it economically infeasible to construct single-family homes for low- and middle-income earners.

Authorizing taller, multifamily buildings, which also results in higher density.

Increasing public funds, perhaps by increasing the excise tax, that could be used in unison with developers to make construction of affordable-housing economically practical.

Revamping zoning regulations, which many developers complain are cumbersome and result in undue delays and higher costs.

Increasing the number of housing units that can be constructed annually. The county restricts that to about 1,700 a year, but Armiger said perhaps units designed for low- and middle-income earners should be above the regulated cap.

Making "excess" public lands available for development.

Marsha S. McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning and a task force member, said the issues of greater height and density are "a bit of a difficult sell," particularly in an election year.

The working paper notes: "We live in a place where the market is king. We certainly enjoy great demand for housing. Having affordable housing gives our community an advantage in this market-driven world. The bottom-line question is, `How can we harness the energy of the market to produce the full spectrum of housing that we need?'"

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