Homes, growth goals collide

Lower-priced units would get exemptions under new bill

December 18, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Few issues in Howard County are as complicated and contentious as affordable-housing policy and growth-management controls. A new County Council bill appears to renew a clash between the two.

The tussle erupted at a council public hearing Monday night, but in some ways it echoed past debates.

Until now, local lawmakers have been reluctant to relax growth-management laws to allow county-required affordable housing to be built faster. In July, the council sharply restricted an Ulman administration bill that also sought to bend growth controls to speed redevelopment along U.S. 1 - another county priority that includes developments that incorporate lower-priced housing.

But as different administrations over time have enacted laws and provisions to help specific projects and ideas, the increasing complexity has created policy conflicts.

The current measure, Council bill 62, which is sponsored by three of the five council members, seems to have a lofty purpose - allowing faster production of more lower-priced housing (called Moderate Income Housing Units or MIHU), but it encompasses the same policy clash.

The idea, according to prime sponsor Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, is that since the county is requiring developers to build lower-priced housing units in some areas, the county should not let growth controls unduly delay them. Ball is joined by co-sponsors Mary Kay Sigaty, and Jenn Terassa, both Democrats.

The bill would accomplish that by exempting these lower-priced units from a growth-control system that limits the number of new housing units approved each year to 1,850 allocations divided among five county areas. The MIHU units would still be subject to laws delaying development around crowded schools and near failing intersections.

"The MIHU program is assisting with the public good by creating housing units more affordable to young workers, first-time homebuyers and retirees," Ball said in introducing the bill during the hearing at school board headquarters.

Because these units are required under county law, he said, an exemption for them is equitable.

"Maybe if we feel this is so important, we shouldn't add an extra hurdle," Ball said later in an interview.

All eight speakers at the hearing, representing affordable-housing advocates and the League of Women Voters, supported the bill.

Andre De Verneil, who spoke for the Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, noted that the idea for the bill came out of the 2006 citizens housing task force that examined the issue.

With development at a standstill because of the sour economy, now is the time to implement more affordable-housing ideas to prepare for better times, he said.

If approved by the council Jan. 5, the measure would help developers of the former Aladdin Mobile Home Park on U.S. 1 in Ball's district. Plans to build 1,067 homes, apartments and condominiums on 40.6 acres just north of Route 175 are stymied, caught between growth controls that would allow only a small number of new housing unit allocations in that area each year, and county zoning law that requires at least 25 percent of the new homes replacing mobile homes to be MIHU. Until county approval of more allocations is in hand, developers say they can't get bank financing for such large projects.

But council members Courtney Watson and Greg Fox fear the measure would breach the growth-control system, and could set a precedent for other deviations in later years, weakening the growth-management system described in the county's General Plan. They argue that there should be some other way to allow projects to progress without exempting them from growth controls.

"Once you start granting exemptions to managed-growth laws, in two, three years, what is next to be an exemption?" said Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat.

Fox had a similar view.

"We have to make sure we don't have unintended consequences," said Fox, a Fulton Republican.

The council will have a work session discussion at 4:30 p.m. Monday at school board headquarters.

The council has tried to help in the past, creating a new pool of 100 housing allocations dedicated for lower-priced homes, but that has created yet another clash.

If the Aladdin developers, who call their new community Howard Park, want to use the separate MIHU pool of 100 allocations, for example, they must keep their units under a certain size. Those limits - 900 square feet for a one-bedroom apartment and 1,100 square feet for a two-bedroom unit - means they must be rental apartments.

County policy is to scatter MIHU throughout a community, but there is no practical way to do that with small apartments. They would all have to be in one building.

"We have to somehow reduce the complexity," Jud Malone told the council during his testimony. Malone, who has represented developers of the Aladdin project at past hearings on other bills, said he spoke Monday as an affordable-housing advocate, not a paid consultant.

"We think what we're supporting is to simplify the process," said Roy Appletree, who spoke for the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, an umbrella alliance of housing advocates.

League of Women Voters co-President Grace Kubofcik also suggested an amendment to make sure the exemption is limited to zones where MIHU units are required by county law.

COUNCIL BILL 62

Highlights:

* Exempts Moderate Income Housing Units (MIHU) from the county's housing allocation system of growth controls

* If an exemption is granted, no more than one-third of the project's total units can be MIHU

* Any development granted an exemption remains subject to the Adequate Public Facility Ordinance, which delays building near crowded schools or intersections.

Sponsors: Calvin Ball, Mary Kay Sigaty and Jenn Terassa, all Democrats.

What's next: Council work session, 4:30 p.m. Monday at school board headquarters.

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