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Time for county to act on workforce housing

April 21, 2006

This week the Washington County Commissioners discussed whether granting exemptions or reductions in the county's excise tax would really encourage the construction of so-called workforce housing.

It's a legitimate question, but here's one that's more important:

Why, almost five months after delivery of a county task force report on workforce housing, isn't there a strategy to make it happen?

The report, delivered in November, noted that the median price of a home in September 2005 was $240,000, while the median income for a family of four was $56,250.

To afford that median-priced house, the task force report said, that same family would have to make $67,416.

The task force offered 17 recommendations, including allowing factory-built homes in areas other than those zoned "agriculture."

On Tuesday, the commissioners heard from John Schuster of SIS Properties LLC, who asked for an excise tax reduction from $15,500 per unit to $1 per square foot for a 24-unit apartment complex in Maugansville.

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If granted, the project would be governed by an agreement that would restrict tenants to those whose incomes were 40 percent or 50 percent below the median income.

According to the commissioners' meeting summary, households with incomes at or below 40 percent of the median would be able to rent a one-bedroom apartment for $330 per month.

Those with incomes at or below 50 percent of the median could rent the same apartment for $450 per month. Under the agreement, those income restrictions would remain in place for the 40-year term of the mortgage.

Commissioners President Greg Snook said the county needed more time to review the project and would comment at a later date.

It's worth noting that the developer was accompanied by Richard Willson, executive director of the Washington County Housing Authority. Willson also chaired the work- force housing task force.

The commissioners have the report and one of their own department heads has offered a project that it seems would meet the area's needs.

In an interview prior to the meeting, Commissioner William Wivell was asked if refusing the exemption would help the workforce housing issue. Wivell said that it wouldn't.

"No, but I don't think you're going to help the workforce housing issue on a piecemeal basis, either," Wivell said.

All right then, if the county isn't going to encourage "piecemeal" solutions to this problem, what is it going to do?

If the commissioners have a better plan, they need to present it, because property values are increasing faster than wages. Just spending another six months mulling over the issue isn't likely to produce much progress.

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