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How do we attain affordable housing? Try asking a developer

October 30, 2005|By Tim Rowland

When the Supreme Court ruled segregation to be unconstitutional 51 years ago, it ordered school boards to integrate "with all deliberate speed."

School boards picked up on the word "deliberate" and proceeded to drag their feet for another decade, until Justice Hugo Black curtly noted that "the time for mere 'deliberate speed' has run out."

Local governments seem to be using their own version of deliberate speed to address the issue of affordable housing, talking with urgency, but acting with lethargy.

So can we jump to the conclusion that local governments today do not believe affordable housing is in their best interests?

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If nothing else, it certainly looks suspicious. As the county grows, commissioners are being pressured on all sides for more public projects, particularly schools and roads. Schools and roads aren't cheap. But commissioners understand the growing public frustration with increasingly crowded classrooms and jammed intersections. Consequently, they have boosted funding to both areas this year. And they've been able to, in no small part, because of the rich property tax hauls that have come with increasing assessments and a wave of massive homes that are well beyond the reach of most local residents.

If commissioners decide that chunks of our finite land supply should be set aside for affordable housing, they are killing the goose. And lest we deride McMansions too much, they are going to be paying for classroom space for our kids and new pavement for us.

Nor is it really in the City of Hagerstown's best interests to push for more affordable housing throughout the county. One of the few aces the city has up its sleeve is something of a corner on the market for relatively cheap homes. If they don't mind a little renovation work, or a lot, a young couple with fairly decent jobs can make a start in Hagerstown, with an eye on moving to the county as their station in life improves.

That's a huge plus for the city, since its greatest need at the moment is for people with paychecks not signed by the U.S. government. Affordable housing in the county actually hurts the city.

This week, a task force studying the issue made recommendations to the County Commissioners for ways to improve housing affordability. Central to the task force's agenda is a proposal for the county to make its homebuilding tax progressive based on the size of the house, rather than a flat, $13,000 fee.

In a vacuum, or even out of one, that certainly appears to make sense. Why should a poorer family buying a $130,000 home pay a 10 percent tax, while a wealthier family buying a $600,000 home pays only a 2 percent tax?

But commissioners didn't appear too willing to consider taxes in excess of $13,000, so to scale back the fee on cheaper homes would be to ask the county and the schools to accept less revenue. So you can figure the county will use deliberate speed on implementing this recommendation.

Besides, when the median home price in Washington County is $240,000 taxes aren't really the problem, property values are the problem. Indeed, what developers today are even bothering to build $130,000 homes?

If there is a demand for $400,000 homes, that's what developers will build, because the bigger the home the bigger the profit.

To my mind, it's unfair to force a private developer to, say, build 10 affordable homes on his ground for every 50 mansions as a condition for construction. But it's quite fair to jigger the economics so as to make a developer want to build some affordable homes because it's profitable.

The city and county do control something that developers want, and hence have something to bargain with: Control over developable land and housing densities.

Viewed in this fashion, it rather turns the equation on its head. Instead of asking "what do affordable housing advocates want?," you are asking "what do developers want?"

Yes, I know. We've all been trained to channel any hatred we may have left over from lawyers and journalists toward the developers. But it is, after all, thanks to developers that we have roofs over our heads and places to shop, eat and work. So there's that.

The task force and the developers working hand in hand might be able to come up with some interesting programs that neither involve taxpayer subsidies, nor perversions of the marketplace. It would involve, heaven forfend, cooperation, but imagine the possibilities:

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