Council candidates weigh in on housing

April 24, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN - Candidates in this year's Hagerstown city elections say rapidly rising housing costs and stagnant local wages are problems that are making it harder for people to own and rent homes in the city.

The affordable housing problem is one that is increasingly apparent in Hagerstown and Washington County. In some cases, candidates said, homes that sold one year ago for $100,000 now sell for nearly twice that, and rents, too, are rising.

The Herald-Mail asked the 10 candidates for Hagerstown City Council what they would do to address the problem if they were elected on May 17.

Making room for affordable housing

Many of the candidates said they would like to pursue a so-called inclusionary zoning program, which requires developers to build some lower-cost homes in all developments, including high-end housing.

In those developments, to offset the financial loss of building a home that doesn't fetch as much as the developer could without price controls, the developer usually gets some kind of incentive, such as being able to build more homes than usually allowed.

The program has had success in some communities, including in Montgomery County, Md., which instituted its Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Program in the 1970s. No such program exists in Hagerstown.

Those who said they were specifically interested in the inclusionary zoning model were incumbent Democrats Kristin B. Aleshire and Lewis C. Metzner, and Republicans Ruth Anne Callaham and Scott D. Hesse.

Aleshire, Callaham and Hesse said they believed inclusionary zoning should be looked at, and it will require working with Washington County government representatives.

Metzner, however, said that while he thought the program is a good one, he doesn't think it will address the largest sector of people who are being affected by the most recent price increase - first-time homeowners.

Democrat Kelly S. Cromer and incumbent Democrat Penny M. Nigh said they would like to see developers have to provide affordable housing, although they didn't specifically say it would have to be done through inclusionary zoning.

"That's the only way I can see some sort of home ownership for the middle-class families" to be provided, Nigh said.

Encouraging home ownership

Metzner said he thinks those residents would best be served with downtown redevelopment, aided by the city's home-ownership program and programs through the city-supported Hagerstown Home Store.

Through the city's home-ownership program, city officials purchase aging homes, refurbish them and sell them at below-market-rate prices.

"You supply affordable housing to middle-class individuals while ... getting rid of substandard housing," Metzner said.

Torrence "Tory" M. VanReenen, a Republican, said she would like to see the city keep an eye open for new housing development opportunities, especially downtown, to increase the level of homeownership.

Cromer and Republican Dan G. Kennedy said they believe continuing the city's homeownership program will help, but they had other ideas as well.

Incentive programs

Cromer said she would advocate for a price break for retired homeowners, likely through property taxes. She said that with property tax assessments on the rise, retirees are especially hard-hit because their incomes are less likely to rise and keep up with rising housing costs.

Kennedy and Hesse both said they were interested in pursuing incentives that would encourage reuse of downtown buildings. For instance, Kennedy said, a tax incentive program could give a break to those who build or redevelop downtown, which has ample unoccupied buildings.

"That's a lot of housing if you start working you way up instead of out," Kennedy said.

Metzner said he believed downtown should be a focus, but he said some incentives already are in place. He said there are several limits on new development - a state-ordered limit on new sewer connections and the soon-to-come excise tax - but they won't affect redevelopment of existing downtown buildings.

"We don't have to go begging" for developers, Metzner said.

Other problems, solutions

The Rev. Haru Carter Jr., a Republican, said one thing he would like to see is better local wages.

"That needs to happen," Carter said. "People can't afford (housing) if they're not making enough."

Nigh said she also sees a problem with federal Section 8, low-income housing vouchers. She said she thinks many people who are using them in the city are coming from other cities and using them here, squeezing out renters who do not have the vouchers.

Callaham said another way to ease housing prices is to simply build more homes - "not overbuild, but build a reasonable amount." Under traditional economic models, she said that should decrease the average price by increasing the housing supply.

Alesia D. Parson, a Democrat, said affordable housing is a problem, although she said she was not ready to discuss her position yet.

"I have deep-seated thoughts" on affordable housing, but "I am more actively listening to the citizens of the community and asking what their beliefs are," Parson said.

Parson said she might reveal her thoughts on affordable housing during the upcoming candidate forums.

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