Housing `gap' addressed

Draft calls for higher densities, relaxation of building restrictions

November 08, 2006|by a sun reporter

Higher densities and a relaxation of construction restrictions are needed to address Howard County's acute shortage of affordable housing, according to a draft report by a task force appointed by County Executive James N. Robey in June.

The 33-page draft recommends a series of initiatives to meet what it describes as "an indisputable gap between the need for affordable housing and the availability of affordable housing" in the county.

The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, warns: "It is inevitable that this gap will continue to grow unless steps are taken to ensure that enough affordable housing is developed to meet the anticipated growth in low and moderate wage jobs in the county, and that existing affordable units are preserved."

The final report is scheduled to be presented to Robey on Nov. 13 - time that assures that the issue will be left to Robey's successor and a new County Council.

"The cost of housing in Howard County is rising at a rate and to a point that it negatively impacts the county's communities, its vibrant lifestyle and its economic base," the report says.

But the draft report also underscores a consensus that the problem cannot be effectively confronted without increasing housing density - the number of housing units per acre.

"Zoning changes need to be made throughout the county, encouraging building and redevelopment at higher densities, and broadening the ability to add housing to commercial sites," the report says.

Greater density is a politically explosive issue as illustrated by the recent public opposition to it at Turf Valley and Maple Lawn, Maryland, and the debate over a proposal to permit 5,500 housing units in downtown Columbia.

The report, however, says, "If we are serious about this problem, changes and some hard decisions need to be made."

It says that the county-imposed limit of 1,850 new housing units annually "is too restrictive to begin to make a dent in keeping up with the affordable housing gap as it grows." The report urges approval of additional moderately priced homes above the cap.

The need for affordable housing, the report says, is severe. Seventy percent of the jobs in the county pay less than $50,000 annually. And 92,000 of those jobs pay less than $35,000, it says.

But escalating prices for land and housing mean that thousands of people who work in the county are forced to live elsewhere.

The average cost of a condominium in May was $273,143, meaning one would need to a salary of $91,000 to purchase a unit, the report says.

Numbers worse

The numbers are worse for single-family homes, where the average price was $485,512 in May, and would require an income of $161,800.

The conditions are not much better for rental units, the report says. The average rent last year ranged from $961 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,500 for three bedrooms, it says. And there are about 2,000 households on a waiting list for rent subsidies.


Among the report's key recommendations are:

Creating a land trust program. These typically develop or acquire homes and preserve them as affordable units.

Requiring developers who receive density bonuses to provide housing that includes the "full spectrum" of prices.

Expediting the regulatory reviews and processing of developments "that address affordable or full-spectrum housing" and waiving fees for developers when their projects include affordable housing.

Establishing more "overlays," or areas where a mixture of commercial and residential development is permitted, and changing zoning regulations to encourage more development of affordable housing.

Extending the county's moderate-income housing program to existing units, in return for density bonuses.

Increasing funds for affordable housing by increasing the transfer tax or by tapping surpluses in the county's general fund.

Giving the county a "right of first refusal" when apartment complexes are being sold, to protect affordable rents.

Increasing protections against rent increases for the low-income and elderly, although that would require changes in state law.

`Perfect opportunities'

The report says that three areas - downtown Columbia and the corridors of U.S. 40 and U.S. 1 - "provide perfect opportunities to try some innovative approaches" through density bonuses, overlays and mixed-use development.

It also describes the housing allocation system as too restraining. That system restricts the number of new housing units to 1,850 a year, and developers can wait several years to build because of the county's adequate public facilities regulations, which delay projects if such things as schools and roads are unable to accommodate the growth.

"There need to be additional affordable housing allocations over and above" the county-imposed limit, the report says. It also says developments should be excluded from the cap if they meet "specified affordable housing criteria."

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