Despite agreement on need, Columbia's zoning laws don't favor moderate-income housing

In Columbia, not all are sold on affordability

December 13, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Amid fears that Howard County's high home prices are hurting the local economy by excluding thousands of workers and seniors as residents, 56 Ryland apartment condominiums for people age 55 and older are nearing completion in East Columbia - but none is reserved for limited-income residents.

In the last eight years, according to county planners, 2,059 building permits have been issued for dwellings in Columbia, but not one of the homes was required to be affordable for people earning less than $55,000 a year.

While business leaders, politicians and housing advocates debate ways of providing more affordable housing, lower-priced units are not required under new town zoning that regulates Columbia, despite founder James W. Rouse's personal commitment to house people of all income levels.

"The only time a [moderate-income] requirement has been added is when there was a zoning change, and there has not been a zoning change in Columbia," said Leonard S. Vaughan, the county's housing director for 15 years until his replacement yesterday by new county executive Ken Ulman.

Vaughan said the sharply higher home prices since 2000 also have had a huge effect.

"What we've seen in the last five or six years is the number of affordable houses is drastically lower every day," he said at a recent Housing Commission meeting.

"The MIHU [moderate-income housing unit] program is not an answer. We're losing more [affordable] houses in a month than we're getting in the MIHU program. You're going to have a situation here where we can't afford to maintain the businesses here - or the school system," Vaughan said.

A recent report of a citizens group appointed by former county executive James N. Robey also stated the problem.

"The children of county residents [with] their parents on fixed incomes, county teachers and police officers and firefighters, hospital workers and others do not earn enough, in many cases, to rent or to buy in the county today."

Despite Howard's reputation for prosperity, 70 percent of jobs in the county pay less than $50,000 a year, according to the Jacob France Institute of the University of Baltimore, the citizens study said.

About 68 percent of county households with incomes below $50,000 a year are paying more than 30 percent of their income for shelter - which is above the federal standard for affordability. To finance a $237,500 mortgage, which is far below the average home price in Howard, a buyer would need to pay at least $1,368 a month, not including taxes and insurance. That amount would require an income of at least $54,710 a year, the study said.

In the last 15 years, only about 1,200 units of low- and moderate-income housing have been produced in Howard County. Another 1,100 units are in the development pipeline, but despite that, 70 percent of Howard's workers don't earn enough to rent or buy in the county, based on standard affordability formulas, the task force study concluded.

Currently, 123,000 Howard jobs pay less than $50,000 a year, and 92,000 of those pay less than $35,000. The study found that low-paying jobs would grow by 24,500 in the next decade. Richard Clinch of the Jacob France Institute estimated the county would need 6,300 more subsidized housing units by 2020 to meet that employment growth.

The task force study said average rents in the county now range from $960 a month for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,500 for three bedrooms - levels that at a minimum would require an income slightly higher than the $40,080 starting pay for county teachers.

"It's too bad the issue of affordable housing has been allowed to languish," said Andre J. DeVerneil, a housing advocate and member of the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing who participated on the task force.

How to change Columbia's zoning to help enable those workers to live in the county is a key part of the current debate over redevelopment in downtown Columbia that could add thousands of new apartments.

"My sense is we have two issues - how to move forward in downtown and how to grapple with the broader issues of new town zoning," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who represented west Columbia as a county councilman.

?lman said he didn't propose a moderate-income housing requirement for Columbia during his four years as a councilman because he knew the primary place for construction would be in town center. He also felt affordable housing should be part of a broader look at how that area, and Columbia, should grow in the future.

The issue has been debated before.

A bill introduced to the County Council by former Councilman C. Vernon Gray in 1992 was intended to provide more homes for moderate-income people throughout the county, including in Columbia.

It would have given developers the right to build more units in exchange for a 10 percent moderate-income requirement that advocates said would produce 250 units a year. But the bill failed on a 3-2 vote in January 1993, because of fears about fast growth.

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