Low-income housing bill faces delay

Council members debate effect on future county development

December 28, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A bill intended to help speed construction of lower-priced homes in Howard County by exempting them from some growth-control restraints might be tabled or delayed further, according to its prime sponsor.

The measure, supported by a chorus of affordable-housing advocates at the council's public hearing Dec. 15, has run into criticism from two County Council members. Fulton Republican Greg Fox and Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson worry that by exempting lower-priced homes from the county's complex housing allocation system, the bill could open the door to further erosion of growth limits.

Although the other three council members are co-sponsoring the bill, they indicated an inclination toward compromise before a scheduled Jan. 5 vote.

"Let's wait to digest the information," Calvin Ball, the prime sponsor of the measure, said after a 90-minute work session Monday.

If substantially altered, the measure would require another public hearing in January, Ball said, so he said a delay by tabling the bill seems reasonable. The measure would exempt lower-priced homes that are classified as Moderate Income Housing Units, or MIHU, from growth controls that limit the total number of homes approved to 1,850 allocations each year, divided among five geographic planning districts.

It would also eliminate maximum unit size limits on 100 of those annual allocations devoted to the MIHU program. The county requires developers to include a varying percentage of MIHU's in 11 land-use zones.

"We may look at moving forward with certain aspects [of the bill]," Ball said, although with two co-sponsors, he has a majority of votes on the five-member council. "I'd rather err on the side of transparency."

To advocates for housing that is within reach of limited-income families, however, the detailed discussion of the myriad rules the county uses to attempt to control growth while promoting affordable housing was confusing.

"Our policy is bewildering. It's working at cross-purposes," said Roy Appletree, who represents the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, an umbrella group of nonprofits seeking more affordable housing.

County planner Jeff Bronow and deputy housing director Thomas P. Carbo explained, for example, how county zoning regulations that control land use might require a developer to build a certain number of town houses, while maximum size limits embedded in some housing rules mean town houses would be impossible to build.

"It's like three blind men examining an elephant," Appletree said after the discussion at school board headquarters Monday.

Howard County uses an annual allocation system to control how many new homes are approved each year. County law delays development planning around crowded schools or near failing intersections.

Over time, county officials have reserved some of those allocations for specific purposes, like the group of 100 set aside annually for affordable housing. The idea was to give developers a way to move forward more quickly in areas where no allocations were available. But a past council included size limits in the law to help guarantee that resales remained affordable. No one-bedroom MIHU can be more than 900 square feet, and no two-bedroom can be larger than 1,100 square feet. In practical terms, that means they must be apartments.

But Bronow told the council that the county housing code requires that town houses must be at least 1,400 square feet. The conflict could mean a builder would be stuck until more allocations become available.

"You have three different sets of codes - housing, allocations and zoning," Bronow explained.

In addition, Ken Ulman's administration policy is to spread lower-priced units throughout a development in hopes of avoiding social stigma. But because the size limits mean MIHU allocations must be apartments, they would have to be all in one building, defeating that policy.

Carbo said the size limits no longer serve a purpose because the county directly controls the re-sale price of MIHU homes to guarantee they remain in the program.

"I don't see anyone who disagrees on size," Watson said.

Watson also said she would like more direction from county housing officials, and she asked whether a more comprehensive review would be better because affordable housing will be a major issue when the council considers the redevelopment of Columbia's town center.

"Are we doing what it is you want to do here?" she asked Carbo.

Stacy L. Spann, the housing director, had appeared at the council's public hearing Dec. 15 to support Ball's measure.

At one point, Fox said he, too, was a bit confused, but council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat who is one of the three co-sponsors with Ball and Jenn Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said her eye is on the bottom line.

"What we end up with [in the bill] is the ability to get more MIHUs available for people who need them," Sigaty said.

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