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Dense pockets of poverty benefit neither city nor the county

June 13, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Each day well before dawn, the headlights of a rattling bus stab through the dust of a downtrodden trailer park north of Leadville, Colo., where a couple dozen sleepy-eyed, mostly Latino passengers board for their daily ride to work.

For more than an hour-and-a-half, the bus strains up and over the two-mile-high Tennessee Pass in the Colorado Rockies with its snoozing, zombie-like cargo, before descending into the resort town of Vail, where the passengers disembark to scrub floors and cook meals for the rich and famous before returning to their own shabby surroundings every night.

The average home in Vail sells for more than $1 million, a bit out of reach for the average floor-scrubber - or even the average school teacher or electrician, for that matter. This fact flies in the face of the philosophy proffered by David Rusk, who believes that if you are good enough to work in a community, you are good enough to live in that community.

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Hagerstown's situation is far less extreme than Vail's, of course, but as housing prices here continue their upward elevator ride, a similar picture emerges: Communities of lower-income people become more dense and more isolated as their housing options diminish.

The City Council fears that these populations will implode upon themselves, in the only area of Washington County that will be affordable to them, which is to say in the city of Hagerstown itself. If this continues, it will seriously threaten several critical city initiatives, most of which involve encouraging wealthier people to live and spend in Hagerstown - thus boosting the tax base, which will light fires of art and entertainment and shopping that will encourage even more people and more wealth to "discover" downtown.

Rusk, a consultant who offered a presentation to city and business leaders at City Hall this week, has a solution that bears some serious consideration.

It's called "Inclusionary Zoning," and instead of restricting housing construction, it actually makes some construction mandatory.

Oversimplifying, as I am occasionally wont to do, it works like this: Any developer constructing more than, say 20 housing units (houses, townhomes, apartments) must set aside 15 percent of those homes for people of lower incomes who can buy or rent them at a fraction of the going market rate.

But the developer does not lose. "The bottom line is that it has to work for the builders, financially," Rusk said.

Here's how: A builder whose site was approved for 30 homes would be allowed a 20 percent or so "density bonus" - that is, he could build six extra homes on his land above the number prescribed under zoning laws. So even though he will "subsidize" 15 percent of his homes for poorer families, he will come out richer because he will be able to sell or rent more homes or apartments than he otherwise would have been allowed.

Developer Don Bowman, who has been around more than a few building blocks, said, "It sounds like a win-win" before pausing, and then essentially asking Rusk, "So what's the catch?"

Very little, Rusk said. The low-income housing is cleverly designed to visually fit seamlessly with the existing community. Further - and no doubt there is a deeper lesson here - when a lower-class family is integrated into more affluent surroundings, what might unfairly be tarred as "lower-class behavior" disappears.

"When you are part of a middle-class community, that becomes your standard of conduct," Rusk said.

Scattering a disadvantaged family here and there throughout the county can, over time, have a significant effect. Had Washington County employed such a program from 1980 through 2000, more than 1,600 homes would have been built for both the working poor and those being weaned off of welfare into the work force.

Doubtless, a number of these families would have come from Hagerstown. So for the city, that would mean a meaningful decrease in the demand for ratty apartments, and a corresponding opportunity for an increase in fixed-up city houses and neighborhoods. Pulling up the weeds gives the flowers a better chance.

As Rusk describes it, this is different from typical government social programs in that it is pure policy manipulation - there is no call for tax dollars and no call for sacrifice on the part of private enterprise.

In fact, if it works as advertised, poor people would be afforded decent housing, builders would realize greater profits and the whole package would be tax-neutral. The tax burden might even ease somewhat, due to a greater number of nicer neighborhoods.

This plan probably wouldn't find much opposition in the city, since it is the city that would have the most to gain. The incentive for the county is less evident - sad to say, there could still be political pressure against locating poorer people in wealthier neighborhoods.

But the county should remember that it ultimately lives and dies by the quality of its urban centers. As Rusk so correctly points out, "If the president of the Chamber of Commerce has to make alibis for the downtown city, then the entire region is in trouble."

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