Affordable housing issue requires a regional strategy

URBAN CHRONICLE

January 25, 2007|By ERIC SIEGEL

Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III and Michael A. Sarbanes approach the issue of inclusionary housing from different directions, and they have opposite views on legislation before the Baltimore City Council that would require developers of residential projects in the city to make up to 20 percent of the units affordable.

But both agree on one point: In the long run, any inclusionary housing strategy will have to encompass the suburbs.

"If you're going to do something like this, you've got to apply it from a regional standpoint," said Landers, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and an opponent of the bill. "There's a market competition out there."

"The region is the unit we're ultimately looking at," said Sarbanes, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association and the chairman of the Baltimore City Task Force on Inclusionary Zoning and Housing, a group whose recommendations formed the basis of Council Bill 06-0558, introduced late last year by Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "Should Anne Arundel and Howard County be stepping up to the plate? They absolutely should."

In her inaugural speech last week, Mayor Sheila Dixon endorsed the thrust of the bill, if not all its details.

"We need to make sure developers address the housing needs of working Baltimoreans -- which is why I support new requirements to build work-force housing for teachers, nurses, firefighters, sanitation workers and the other hard-working people of our city," Dixon said.

The week before, the Center for Housing Policy released an analysis of 200 metropolitan areas nationwide that highlighted the gap between wages of a variety of workers and the income needed to buy a house. The center provides research for the National Housing Conference, a proponent of affordable housing.

In the Baltimore metro area, the annual income needed to purchase a median-priced home of $275,000 (based on third-quarter data) was $94,206, according to the study -- well above the $60,000 that is the going rate for registered nurses, and slightly less than the $50,000 that is the prevailing wage for experienced elementary school teachers and police officers. (The study assumed one-income households. With two-income households, the gap is less daunting, but that's another story.)

Yet the key phrase here is "metro area." With a median sales price of about $170,000, homes in the city are in reach to those workers, though not to lower-paid workers such as nursing aides and housekeepers.

So the jurisdiction in the region with the most available affordable housing is taking the lead in creating more affordable housing.

For years, the suburbs lagged in the creation of public and low-income housing. That's one reason the city has more than 90 percent of the region's public housing units.

In 1974, Montgomery County adopted an inclusionary housing and zoning law, also known as a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program, that has been credited with creating more than 12,000 affordable units throughout the county. The program is widely regarded as a national model, but Maryland's growing suburbs didn't take the clue.

It was not until 2002 that Frederick County adopted an ordinance; Annapolis followed suit two years later. Baltimore's suburbs did very little. Anne Arundel County made an unsuccessful pass at a law three years ago, and a Howard County task force issued recommendations last year.

A spokesman for the Howard County Department of Housing and Community Development said a review of possible options is expected to be completed by mid-March, but that no legislation is on the table.

Landers has compiled some interesting figures. As of the beginning of this month, he said, 41 percent of the houses in the city offered for sale through the multiple listing system were affordable to households making 80 percent of the regional median income of $72,000 a year, or about $57,000 a year.

In Baltimore County, the figure was 7 percent; in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties combined, it was 3 percent.

Landers argues that any money used to subsidize development of affordable units in expensive developments would be better spent shoring up marginal neighborhoods, and he worries that action by the city would hamper development.

"We can't keep doing this in a vacuum," he said.

Sarbanes acknowledged the city's relative affordability. But he said affordable housing in the city is harder to come by than it was a few years ago, and that the city needs to plan for the future, when it is likely to get a larger share of the region's growth.

"Over the next year, I would expect Anne Arundel and Howard counties will both be addressing this issue," he said. "The work in Baltimore County is at an earlier stage."

Sarbanes said the same coalition of groups -- CPHA, the church group BRIDGE, the nonprofit Innovative Housing Institute and the Baltimore Urban League -- that supports inclusionary housing legislation in the city will be pushing the issue in the surrounding counties.

"They will be pressured to step up and forced to step up," he said. "This has to happen in the entire region. That is very much a part of our agenda."

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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