As rents, home prices rise,lower-cost options needed

June 03, 2004

Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny Nigh is correct - Hagerstown has enough rental housing, whether or not it's subsidized. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond in the early 1990s found that the city's percentage of rental to owner-occupied housing was 60 percent rental, 40 percent owner-occupied, just the opposite of what the experts felt it should be.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a need for more affordable housing in this county, where the average rent is rising much faster than the median income. Councilwoman Nigh was correct last week when she said it's time for the Washington County government to start doing more in this area.

There are a number of possibilities. In the early 1980s, the county issued $9 million in bonds to allow home purchasers facing mortgage interest rates of 16 percent or higher to get what then seemed like the discount rate of 13.8 percent.


But the problem isn't high interest rates now, but steep increases in rents and the average home price.

In April 2003, the average selling price of a home in Washington County was $154,062. By April 2004, that had risen to $221,304, a jump of more than 40 percent.

In a May 30 story by The Herald-Mail's Wanda Williams, contractor Timothy Fields said there's a "dismal absence of work-force housing for people who live here in Washington County."

In an op-ed that will run Sunday, June 6, Debi Turpin, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Washington County, puts the blame on an increase in fees levied by government.

She also said her agency would be studying how other areas dealt with the problem.

In our view, it won't happen without government intervention, because land owners and builders won't willingly take less for their property or their labor.

We suggest government look at the following possibilities:

  • Cutting fees for simple "starter" homes.

  • Tying approval of large subdivisions to agreements to add some affordable rental units.

  • Encouraging renovation of older rental properties into condominiums where owners could build equity without a $100,000 mortgage.

    There may be other, better ideas. The only one we're sure won't work is just hoping that this situation will get better by itself.

    Getting young folks to vote

    In 1972, when the voting age was lowered to 18, the most frequently heard argument in favor of the change was that it wasn't fair to expect young people to serve and die for their country without also allowing them to vote.

    But in the three decades since then, voter participation by adults ages 18 to 24 has seen a steady drop. The Associated Press reported that surveys done by the National Association of Secretaries of State found that while 50 percent of young adults cast ballots in 1972, fewer than 20 percent did so in 1998.

    Just as newspaper readers spend more time on the editorial page and less time on the comics as they age, some young people who have no interest in voting now will develop one later, as they begin to work and pay taxes.

    But the danger of leaving that up to chance is that for many citizens, not voting could become a lifelong habit.

    So what's the answer?

    Some states have increased voter turnout with a program called Kids Voting. Patterned after a Central American tradition in which children accompany parents to the polls, Kids Voting sets up "straw polls" so that children can express their preferences at the same polling places where their parents cast ballots.

    In other areas, some organizations have made registering to vote a prerequisite for membership in fraternal and/or civic groups.

    Pennsylvania is taking another approach. When an estimated 150,000 students graduate from the state's high schools this month, they'll receive a voter-registration card.

    We urge parents to tell the young graduates to fill out that card and participate in the process, for one good reason.

    Not voting means leaving the decision up to someone else. When fewer people vote, that makes it easier for the special interests to elect those who might look out for a favored few instead of doing what's good for everyone.

    Tell your child not to forget what it was like being under a parent's control and how nice it felt to achieve some independence. Those who don't vote give up that independence and agree to be controlled, not by their parents, but by people they don't even know.

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