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Why citizens should OK affordable housing relief

October 04, 2005

Elsewhere on this page is a letter from Richard Willson, who chaired Washington County's task force on work force housing.

As Willson notes, there is one key question citizens must answer: Should taxpayers help low- and moderate-income families become homeowners?

We say yes, but before we explain why, some background is needed.

On Sept. 27, the task force recommended that the county contribute $3,000 apiece to home down payments for families eligible for a $3,000 state contribution.

The task force report says that if that $6,000 were bundled together with $3,000 from an employer participating in the state's House Keys 4 Employees program, the would-be homeowners could begin with a $9,000 down payment.

The task force also recommended creation of a Housing Trust Fund that would purchase land on which affordable homes would be built.

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The trust would own the land and the homeowner would pay an annual "ground rent."

The task force also suggested that the county allow manufactured housing in some areas where zoning now prohibits it. Whether the task force envisions modular-style housing or mobile homes is unclear, but the object is clearly to quickly create a supply of affordable housing.

The task force also proposed adding $1 million a year for five years to the county's housing rehabilitation program to purchase, renovate and resell homes that are now substandard.

Finally, the task force proposed incentives for developers to provide affordable housing in their developments.

This last recommendation should be the easiest to enact, because developers eager to get projects moving wouldn't find this a hardship.

But the others would require the commissioners to commit cash, which means that other priorities, including tax relief, might have to wait.

So why should they do it?

First, because most citizens should be able to agree that it's a good thing to have workers such as nurses, police and fire/rescue personnel living in the county where they work. In an emergency, it would not be wise to have many of these professionals 60 to 70 miles away.

Helping families become homeowners is also likely to help with the revitalization of the City of Hagerstown, because many older, smaller houses there are good "starter homes" for families who can't afford $200,000-plus suburban properties.

And, as noted in David Rusk's book, "Cities With Suburbs," raising the income levels of a city's residents actually helps the surrounding county's economic-development efforts.

Keeping workers close to home also does two other things. Sparing parents long commutes gives them more time with their families and also allows them to volunteer as sports coaches and help with other youth-related activities.

And, workers who do not have long commutes will not flood local roads during rush hours as they hurry to get to work on time or beat the crowd to get home. Employees who face short commutes are also more likely to arrive early or stay late, if necessary.

Fewer commuters also equals better air quality and delays the need for road upgrades. It's one more thing to think about before taxpayers conclude that work force housing is somebody else's problem.

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