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Follow governor's lead on affordable housing

August 22, 2006

During his appearance last week at the Maryland Association of Counties' annual meeting, Gov. Robert Ehrlich tried to make the case that he deserves another term.

Then the governor offered a list of ideas he said he would work to make happen if he were re-elected.

One item that caught our attention was affordable housing. Ehrlich said that people who work in health care and public safety need to live in the communities where they are employed.

Just how that will be accomplished isn't clear, but we hope that this is an initiative that whoever is elected Maryland's next governor will support.

The lack of affordable housing is not just a Maryland problem. In August of 2005, the Michigan Land Use Institute reported that "the mismatch between rising living costs and stagnant working wages also is pushing homeownership rates down in some states .."

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The institute's report also quoted a Harvard study that found that "during the past 20 years, average housing prices rose between 30 and 100 percent faster than average incomes in 63 of the 153 metropolitan areas studied."

One possible remedy is what the San Diego Union-Tribune calls "the density bonus." In exchange for putting affordable units in their developments, the developers get to exceed density and/or height restrictions.

In Montgomery County, the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program, or MPDU, has provided more affordable housing since 1974.

In exchange for putting some affordable units in their developments, developers get to build more homes than the zoning would normally allow.

The good thing is that MPDU is court-tested, so it could be enacted here, as-is, fairly quickly. But in a county much larger than this one, it produced only 11,000 homes from 1976 to 2001. There are administrative costs as well.

If incentives can't produce enough housing, then government might have to require developers to add affordable housing to new developments.

That may seem harsh, but part of a developer's profit depends on amenities that government provides, such as police, fire-rescue and recreational facilities.

By making sure there is affordable housing so people can live where they work, the county would reduce the number of miles commuters travel, curbing air pollution and easing road congestion.

Not only would it protect the environment, but it would also enable workers to spend less time on the road and more at home. It's an idea that deserves more than talk.

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