County housing program investigated

State's attorney starts inquiry, Ulman says

April 06, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

Unspecified irregularities in a Howard County housing program have prompted an inquiry by the county state's attorney, according to County Executive Ken Ulman.

Ulman told a breakfast group yesterday in Columbia that Stacy L. Spann, his new housing director, and Tom Carbo, the deputy housing director, have found "things that disappointed us greatly" in the agency's operations that occurred before they began working in January.

"They have been clearing up quite a mess in that department," Ulman told about 75 people at an Association of Community Services breakfast at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center. The "mess" has delayed the announcement of new housing programs and policies to boost affordable housing, Ulman said.

Spann attended the breakfast but refused to comment on the situation. Ulman later said "the state's attorney is involved."

The executive would not provide details of the problems, except to say that an audit of the department ordered by Spann is under way, and that the matter being examined by authorities was not revealed by the audit.

A spokesman for county State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone refused to confirm or deny any investigation. A source close to the situation said the probe involves a housing project in the county, not the county housing office itself.

Leonard S. Vaughan, the former county housing director fired by Ulman, also refused comment on the executive's remarks.

Ulman told the breakfast group that despite impatience with a lack of progress on affordable housing among advocates in the field, "we'll be seeing some exciting things in the near future."

He noted that the General Assembly has approved a bill that would help. The legislation would lower the property tax bill for those who buy moderate-income homes under a program run by the Housing Commission in which the county retains partial ownership of the houses. The bill would allow the participants to pay taxes only on the portion of the house they own. Buyers now must pay taxes on the entire market value of a house purchased under the program, although the Housing Commission owns up to 49 percent.

Ulman said there are only 22 homes in the program right now - too few to make much impact. "It's just inexcusable," he said.

"We're going to be ratcheting up housing opportunities soon," he said, adding later that the county will "be much more aggressive" in seeking new opportunities, but providing no details.

He emphasized, however, his opposition to a policy implemented under Vaughan that allowed developers to move moderate-income housing units away from their primary building sites in exchange for providing more units.

Vaughan got County Council approval for the change in policy after months of study, based on the sharp escalation in housing prices. Builders said they could no longer provide new homes at $250,000 each amid units selling for more than $700,000, especially because of the high property taxes, and homeowner association fees that can reach $600 a month. By clustering moderate-income units on separate, cheaper parcels, builders said they would provide more units that civil servants and middle-class working people could afford.

The policy has resulted in community opposition to several projects.

Ulman said he opposes concentrating subsidized units in one building or development because it inevitably causes a stigma. Children do better, too, he said, if they live in economically mixed communities.

Howard County will not approve any more new projects that concentrate moderate-income units, he said. He wants subsidized units sprinkled in among market-priced ones instead.

More details about his housing plans may come to light when Ulman presents his first operating budget April 16.

On another topic, the executive said he and Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, county health officer, plan to announce some new health initiatives Monday.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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