Home plans spark unease

Public cautious about affordable housing initiatives

October 17, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

The message for Howard County Council members considering a clutch of seemingly minor affordable-housing bills seemed clear after 210 minutes of testimony from two dozen speakers -- go forward, but cautiously.

Advocates for action to provide more homes and apartments for civil servants and other working families were out in force at Monday night's public hearing in the George Howard Building, but so were speakers worried about how the bills would affect their homes, neighborhoods and businesses.

The council is to discuss the measures at a work session Monday and vote Nov. 5.

Two limited-income apartment developments mentioned in three resolutions -- the Residences at Ellicott Gardens in Ellicott City and Parkview at Emerson in North Laurel -- drew no direct criticism. Most attention was centered on four bills intended to give county housing officials more chances to help working families.

Three bills, sponsored by council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, would give preference for moderate-income housing units to county civil servants, people dislocated from homes along U.S. 1 and low-wage workers; require that the county be notified of any pending apartment complex sale; and allow a few more moderate-income units in some apartment buildings being converted to condominiums.

Several leaders of county nonprofits said their low-paid workers should be among those who qualify for a housing preference.

The bill that drew the most comment would let the Howard County Housing Commission work with private developers to build limited-income units on some commercially zoned land -- which would clear the way for the 106-unit Residences at Ellicott Gardens to be built on Route 108 south of Route 100. The bill also would set limits on building heights, setbacks and the size of sites for future projects.

County housing officials see the bill as a rarely used tool, but some residents worry about where such buildings would go. The county Chamber of Commerce -- while supporting housing for needed workers -- wants to limit how much commercial land can be used for housing.

Others focused on the broader aspects of the sometimes emotional housing issue.

"One thing the county cannot afford to do is create low-income ghettos," said Werner Gruhl, an Oakland Mills resident. Gruhl, like others from his community, said he supports the affordable-housing concept but feels there are too many families living in rent-subsidized units concentrated in his area.

Tim Sosinski, an architect and co-chairman of a 2006 citizens' task force that recommended 16 ways to promote affordable housing, summed up the frustration of those pushing for action.

"It has taken almost a year to get to the point where we have these minor but necessary initiatives. The clock is ticking, and the problem is not going away. We have a huge need," he said.

Earl Arminger, a county builder who has specialized in housing for limited-income people, also supported the bills. "There are those who would say Howard County does not have a responsibility for full-spectrum housing. I reject that notion," he said.

Robert M. Buchmeier, representing the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, sounded a more practical warning.

"Howard County is on a path to becoming an unsustainable, exclusive enclave," he said.

That view was backed by about 35 people dressed in bright-green T-shirts who belong to PATH, People Acting Together in Howard, a grass-roots group working through area churches and community groups for social progress and represented by speaker Jim Connolly of Ellicott City, who belongs to St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge.

Oakland Mills residents said they want areas with high numbers of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches to be exempt from additional limited-income housing, which they say is now concentrated in Columbia's older villages and along U.S. 1.

"All communities need affordable housing. There's a need for balance," said William H. Lewis, who represented the village board.

Speakers from other groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Greater Elkridge Community Association, the Howard County Association of Realtors and other individuals, said they had problems with the language in various bills.

Kay Wisniewski, who said she's a 38-year resident of Oakland Mills, wanted Ball's notification bill changed to require that the community near an apartment house about to be sold be notified, not just tenants and the county.

She and other residents also want more public scrutiny of housing transactions.

Virginia M. Thomas, a former state delegate, criticized allowing the appointed Howard County Housing Commission to act as a developer for moderate-income projects.

"A commission doesn't sound like it's accountable to anyone," she said.

Brice Dawson, a Howard native and Oakland Mills High School graduate who teaches at Ellicott Mills Middle School, asked for approval of a bill full of technical changes to the housing laws -- including one that would allow him to qualify for a moderate-income unit.

The sole earner in a family of four, his $62,000 annual salary would qualify his family for Howard's program, he said, except for one thing: Current law counts the $45,000 in equity the family has in its Baltimore County home as income, disqualifying him from Howard's program.

"I just began my 10th year of teaching Howard County students, and I would like nothing better than to be able to send my own two sons to Howard County schools," he said. "With your help, my family can reach our dream of coming home to Howard County."

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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