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County's 'workforce housing' law is really a bonanza for developers

September 11, 2005|By John Colson

"Workforce housing" is a story by Washington County Commissioners Greg Snook, Jim Kercheval, and Dori Nipps. As the commissioners tell it, you can build a $400,000 house and it's "workforce housing."

Like in Alice in Wonderland, Snook, Kercheval and Nipps spin fairy tales - stories where "workforce housing" amount to giveaways to developers.

Where housing cost has nothing to do with workforce housing. Where developers can get tax credits for building $400,000 houses. Where the planning director can dream up numbers. Where we all live in Alice's Wonderland.

The story starts simply: "'Workforce housing' means housing for households with an income that is greater than 50 percent but does not exceed 120 percent of the average family median income for households in Washington County as established by the Planning Director." {"Building Excise Tax Ordinance for Washington County, Maryland, [Sec.13.(a)(2)]"}.

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Wait a minute! That's not about housing. It's about income. There must be a real definition of "workforce housing" somewhere in the ordinance. How much you earn doesn't have anything to do with how much the developer is charging.

Nowhere in Sec. 13, or anywhere in the ordinance, is there any definition that connects housing prices with "workforce housing." "Workforce housing means housing for households with an income." Washington County defines "workforce housing" as how much you make, not how much it costs.

Snook, Kercheval, and Nipps passed a "workforce housing" ordinance that doesn't have anything to do with housing. As Lewis Carroll said "Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter's remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English."

Doesn't common sense tell you that when you talk about "workforce housing" there should be something about housing? If you want to talk about income, shouldn't that be tied to the price of housing? To what households making "greater than 50 percent but does not exceed 120 ercent ..." can afford?

Snook, Kercheval, and Nipps had a model to work from. Just down the road in Montgomery County, workforce housing legislation ties the cost of the housing with the family income. Then it says, housing that costs within that range is designated as "workforce housing." Five minutes on the Montgomery County Web site and they could have printed out a sample of workforce housing legislation. One that's been tried. One that's working.

Instead, Snook, Kercheval, and Nipps passed a meaningless group of words. It doesn't have anything to do with housing. It has everything to do with their next campaign when they can say, "We passed workforce housing."

Things get even sillier- look at the phrase: "average family median income for households in Washington County as established by the Planning Director."

Suppose the planning director, says that the "average family median income for households in Washington County" is $100,000. That's just fine with Snook, Kercheval, and Nipps. The planning director can use any old number he wants.

That's how Snook, Kercheval, and Nipps manage workforce housing - first make it meaningless, then make it ridiculous.

Now we get to the good stuff. No more nonsense from Snook, Kercheval and Nipps. When it comes to giving away our money to developers, the commissioners suddenly discover how to write very plainly:

"Sec. 13(e)(1) A municipal corporation within Washington County may grant a building excise tax credit against the Washington County building excise tax imposed on single-family residential units and multi-family units that are developed within the municipal corporation as workforce housing." What's this mean?

Tax credit! All a developer has to do is say that these houses or these town homes are workforce housing and bingo, he can get all his money back from the building excise tax. Nice deal, huh?

Now we see why it's a problem that "workforce housing" wasn't tied to the price of the house.

A $400,000 home containing 5,000 square feet? Don't want to pay the building excise tax? Just call it "workforce housing." Nothing, absolutely nothing, is stopping the developer from doing just that.

This is even more clever than the 1,500 square foot exemption in Sec. 3A (a)(3). No excise tax whatever the size of the house. Yep, two simple words - "workforce housing" - got rid of all those pesky taxes that a developer had to pay.

What developer isn't going to take advantage of this? Since price doesn't define workforce housing, every house is workforce housing. There're millions of dollars at stake here.

What politician isn't going to campaign saying, "We built lots of workforce housing while I was in office."?

Only in Washington County does a $400,000, 5,000 square-foot-house qualify as workforce housing.

Snook, Kercheval, and Nipps passed an ordinance that doesn't address the problem of workforce housing. It does address developers' increased profits.

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