Weekly Letter: Government and Housing

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I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks talking about housing - to county staff, to residents, to developers, to the press, and to members of our County Council. 

Why? Because on Monday, November 6 the County Council will hear from the public on a bill that could make over 200 brand new homes and apartments per year accessible to people who are currently priced out of the market.

It’s not a new idea. Most counties in our region have been doing it for years, and twenty years ago Senator Pam Beidle nearly got it through our County Council. Had she succeeded, we estimate that some 4,000 market rate homes and apartments would be moderately priced today.

We’re calling our bill the Essential Worker Housing Access Act (Bill 78-23), but the mechanism is to require that 15% of rental units and 10% of for-sale units built in the future by private developers be priced at a level that is affordable for folks at 75% of area median income ($62,156 per year for a single person and more for families) for rental, or 100% of area median income ($82,875 per year for a single person and more for families) for ownership. Some call these “inclusionary housing bills” because they bring affordable units to communities where lower income people were previously excluded. Subdivisions under ten units are exempt. 

I’ve been fully engaged on this for two reasons. One is that our county desperately needs the housing. Every family that is cost burdened (paying over 30% of income on housing), evicted, overcrowded, or living in unsafe conditions is a vulnerable family, to all of the trauma of poverty. As average rents have risen toward $2,000 per month with median home sales nearing a half million, housing instability is growing. That hurts parents, kids, young people starting careers, downsizing seniors, neighborhoods, and employers. Businesses need housing that is affordable for their employees.

The other reason is that, like twenty years ago, I’m not sure we have the votes that we need on the County Council to pass it. I want to let you in on the dynamics of that, and ask for your help.

First, it’s worth noting that housing developers are divided on this bill. The supporters tell me that the industry needs that government intervention or it will continue building only what sells at the highest price, and our housing crisis will worsen, ultimately hurting our whole economy. 

But most developers don’t like this bill. Their association has asked us instead to upzone more land and remove environmental and adequate public facility regulations to allow more overall development. They argue that by increasing housing supply overall, the affordability problem will take care of itself. If we aren’t willing to abandon the bill, they’ve asked us to slow down and invest in studies of the issue.

I agree with some of what the developers are saying. We do have obstacles to housing development in our county code that have no public benefit, some of which we’ve addressed already and others we will. In particular, we need to allow smaller units to be built in ways that don’t fit into our zoning code, what some people call zoning to allow missing middle housing. We also need to continue addressing our worst traffic bottlenecks, with both road improvements and multi-modal transportation.

Our first draft of this bill was a bit tough on developers. We wanted the rental units affordable for folks at 60% of median income, but we bumped it up to 75%. We also offered no fee waivers for the affordable units, but then came back with a full impact fee waiver and 50% cut to sewer and water connection fees. 

The question that still remains is whether we can get four votes on the Council. Some holdouts raise legitimate concerns about implementation, as there are with any new program. I believe that our housing professionals are better qualified than legislators to work with the industry on the rollout. That’s how most programs are created.

Others, particularly the three Republicans on the Council, are more philosophical about it, which I also respect. They prefer to let the marketplace function freely, and are skeptical of government intervention. I’d prefer that as well, if it didn’t leave so many people without a safe place to sleep at night.

Nobody believes that this bill will solve our housing affordability problem alone, but it complements the other work we’ve done and will do. I’m proud that we passed the workforce housing density bonus, the fair housing bill, the accessory dwelling unit bill, and created a Housing Trust Fund with a dedicated revenue source. I’m committed to facilitating the flexibility in our zoning code to diversify our housing stock. 

But if we continue to be one of the few counties in the region that allows the last of our developable land to be built out with luxury homes and apartments that half of our workforce can’t afford, our next generation will look back and say that we built an unsustainable future.

As with all legislation before the County Council, you can send written testimony or appear in person at the November 6, 7pm meeting at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert Street. Or stop by to join advocates who are rallying for the bill across the street at The People’s Park that evening at 5:45pm.

Until next week… 

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive