Forum looks at issue of affordable housing

September 17, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

How to create more affordable housing in Washington County in a climate of rising land prices and increasing population was the topic of discussion at a two-hour forum at Hagerstown Community College on Wednesday night.

At the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Washington County, two local housing officials, a Washington County Commissioner and a local business representative shared their ideas on affordable housing as some members of the audience posed questions to the officials.

"We'll never be caught up on affordable housing," Washington County Commissioner Doris J. Nipps said. "I don't know that we will ever get to the point where there will never be a need."


The panel members agreed the problem facing the area is a combination of rising land prices, a local population surge prompted by even higher land prices in Frederick County, Md., and east, and stagnant wages for those who need housing assistance.

But the panel members diverged on some ideas of how to tackle that problem.

All indicated they believed that it would be good to continue discussions on a new housing policy that would encourage developers to include low- and middle-income housing in high-income housing developments. That type of policy is known as inclusionary zoning.

But it could take some time to put such a policy in place.

Nipps, who also was representing Habitat for Humanity of Washington County, said inclusionary zoning has been discussed by some of the county commissioners, but it is not something that can happen immediately.

"Frankly, affordable housing has not been on the top of (the county commissioners') list. ... At some point in time, I think it will be a discussion we will have with the city," Nipps said.

Ted Shankle, executive director of the Hagerstown Housing Authority, called on the county commissioners to "step up to the plate. .... Washington County is trying to avoid the problem."

While he didn't rule it out, Shankle said he didn't believe there would be any increases in the amount of affordable housing inside city limits, even though the waiting lists for housing authority-owned homes and low-income housing vouchers continue to contain hundreds of people.

Jim Upchurch, president of Frederick, Md.-based Interfaith Housing Alliance, said that in addition to inclusionary zoning rules, local governments should be careful when creating local impact fees and adequate public facilities ordinances because they may be unfair to low-income home buyers.

Upchurch also called on public officials who work to bring employers into the area to make sure there is enough housing for them, as well.

Better financial support of local nonprofit organizations that already work with low-income residents could be one way to provide more affordable housing, said Art Callaham, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, a business-supported community group.

Another suggestion: "How do you solve affordable housing in the urban core? You get people jobs," Callaham said.

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