On affordable housing, there's no reason to wait

September 21, 2004

Last week the Washington County chapter of the League of Women Voters held a forum on affordable housing, a topic that Commissioner Doris Nipps admitted hasn't been on top of the commissioners' to-do list.

But it would be a mistake for Nipps and others to conclude that it will take a citizens' commission, a consultant study or some other momentous effort to get this affordable housing effort started.

How bad is the problem?

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.

There's a trickle-down effect for lower-priced older properties, because as new home buyers are priced out of that market, they begin bidding up used housing prices.


The result: 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."

If left unchecked, the trend will mean that local people who do blue-collar jobs will be unable to afford to live where generations of their ancestors did.

Those who don't care about that should reflect on the traffic problems that will result if all those people have to travel here from somewhere else.

In addition to the time lost commuting, the traffic congestion and air pollution, those people will also be unavailable to volunteer for a variety of local causes, including as youth sports coaches.

Fortunately, there's a solution that can be implemented almost immediately. It's the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program, or MPDU for short.

Enacted in 1974 in Montgomery County, Md., it works on a simple idea. In exchange for being allowed to build more homes than zoning would otherwise allow, the developer agrees that a certain percentage of those units will be affordable housing, as opposed to homes priced as high as the market will bear.

MPDU is not perfect, as the CATO Institute's Tim Firey has pointed out in these pages. But it has been in place for 30 years and it's court-tested, so anyone who wants to sue will face legal precedent that will make the plan difficult to defeat.

Is there a reason to delay such a plan? Only if you're an elected official waiting to see which way the political wind is blowing. Those who care about affordable housing should start stirring up a breeze in favor of this idea.

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