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Affordable housing issue will be revisited by League of Women Voters

November 27, 2007

A Hagerstown couple who didn't believe they could afford a new house discovered that they could - as long as they didn't want one of the mini-mansions that became popular in recent years.

What Jennifer Leizear and Reese Roberts did certainly saved them money, but their idea might also provide a partial solution to the shortage of workforce housing in Washington County.

That issue concerned county officials enough to have the issue studied by a task force, which issued a report in 2005.

The report recommended, among other things, the enactment of inclusionary zoning, which would allow developers additional density if they agreed to build some more affordable homes.

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The report also called for changes in the excise tax, so that smaller homes would pay less and creation of a housing trust fund that would offer loans to spur creation of more affordable housing.

The common thread here seems to be a realization that affordable homes won't be as big as what most developers are building.

In the case of the Hagers-town couple, the house they ended up with was 25 percent smaller than the standard rancher offered by their builder, Home Construction Corp.

Developers won't voluntarily include smaller homes in their developments, especially if they believe they can sell bigger, more expensive structures. They need an incentive.

What sort of incentive?

The usual incentive is to allow a developer to build more units than the zoning would normally allow, in exchange for building some more affordable units.

Another possibility: Provide builders with an incentive to build an entire development of affordable homes. The advantage would be that all of the residents of the development would be in the same income group.

When their income increased, or the family outgrew the house, they would use the equity they've built up to move to another, more expensive home.

If such a development were run through the Washington County Housing Authority, homeowners could get an affordable house in exchange for an agreement to share any excess profit with the authority.

The authority could then use those funds to help the next buyer. Converting such units to rentals should be prohibited, as well as putting on additions that would take the home out of the "affordable" category.

Whether that or another method of providing workforce housing is enacted will probably depend on the work now being done by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Washington County.

The league has formed an Affordable Housing Coalition, with its stated goal being to implement the housing task force's 2005 recommendations.

Assuming that you have a home, why should you care about anyone else's problems?

Because the lack of affordable housing makes it difficult to recruit and retain people in the public-service sector, such as nurses, schoolteachers and law-enforcement personnel.

As Richard Willson, executive director of the Washington County Housing Authority, wrote in May, the more people who commute to higher-paying jobs elsewhere, the poorer this community is.

"Families have less time to give back to the communities in which they live, our roads are clogged with traffic, water and air quality suffers, and so far, this growth has not led to any marked increase in higher-paying, skilled jobs," Willson wrote.

This is a problem for every citizen, so when the LWV raises the issue, please give the group your support.

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