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Many Minds Puzzling Over Affordable Housing

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Howard and Anne Arundel counties are places where people want to live. The question is: Can they afford to even consider it?

Before the November elections, Joan Driessen, executive director of the Association of Community Services of Howard County, was asked what she considered to be the biggest challenges facing her community. “I think the biggest issues are affordable housing and affordable child care,” she said, “and they are also among the issues hardest to address.”

The median income in Howard County is around $108,000, according to census data.

Affordable housing in downtown Columbia has been an issue of debate since the conception of the master plan to redevelop the area. The Howard County Council is considering a resolution that would expedite construction of affordable housing units downtown, which some community leaders say is lagging behind the rest of the redevelopment.

The Downtown Columbia Housing Corporation, a nonprofit charged with ensuring a full spectrum of housing in downtown, has the goal of making 15% of the proposed new units in the downtown affordable.

Roy Appletree, who is a member of the Downtown Columbia Housing Corporation, as well as the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, said there are many working definitions of affordable housing. “You can have the title of ‘manager’ [in the company at which you work] and still not [be able to] afford to live in Howard County,” he said.

Appletree criticized the lack of foresight in creating affordable housing in Columbia’s village centers. “The issues in the older villages — Oakland Mills, Wilde Lake — are very real, and I very much condemn the lack of planning years ago for revitalization.”

Jim Rouse, Columbia’s founder, had a vision for a mix of housing for an economically and racially diverse community, he said. “Then, over almost 40 years here, only two or three elected officials have really been willing to push for affordable housing. I think making sure we have affordable housing downtown will be a battle of wills, and that bothers me.”

High-Cost Community

Every low-wage worker in Howard County is at a constant risk for homelessness, said Jane O’Leary, executive director of Bridges to Housing Stability.

“A family who is spending 50% or more of their income on housing is cutting corners on other expenses, and their stability is going to crumble sooner or later,” she said. “A low-income person who is current on their rent is probably behind on their utilities or driving without insurance or going without medication. It’s a dangerous balancing act.”

It is short-sighted to see homelessness as a social service problem only, said O’Leary. “With more and more workers on the brink of homelessness, we see a growing problem for employers, as well. Housing instability takes its toll on every aspect of a family’s life, including a worker’s contributions to his or her employer. No one gains from a worker’s housing instability, and conversely, everyone gains from a worker’s stability.”

Long Wait in AA County

The waiting list for public housing and housing choice vouchers in Anne Arundel County is the highest it’s ever been, said Kathleen M. Koch, executive director of Arundel Community Development Services. “It’s close to 30,000,” she said.

There also is an unprecedented number of people in the county who are paying more than 50% of their income toward their housing, she said.

“Any little crisis puts people over the edge,” she said. “Our median house price is on its way back up again. It never went down that far, even during the economic downturn.”

Koch urged people to stop stereotyping those with a so-called “low income.”

“People who are at 80% and 60% below the median income are not people who are committing a lot of crimes,” she said. “Instead, they are working hard a lot of times — two or three jobs. They are holding their families together. A lot of times they make good neighbors, not bad neighbors.”

The median household in Anne Arundel County is $81,455. “The rental market is getting tighter and tighter,” she said. “It’s an economic development issue. It’s not just a social issue.”

Nonprofit Support

Nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity — well-known for teaming volunteers with future homeowners to build affordable housing — are also strengthening the movement toward higher rates of home ownership.

In addition to building homes, Habitat operates ReStores, retail outlets with building materials, appliances, furniture and other home goods donated by builders or residents.

Homeowners who want to make home repairs or home improvements on a tight budget shop at ReStores, and the proceeds go back to help fund Habitat for Humanity.

“Let’s say a homeowner wants to remodel a kitchen,” explained Jennifer Miller, spokesperson for ReStores. “They might find cabinets, countertops and appliances.”

For people who want to make donations, ReStores offer a free pickup — and a tax receipt.

Other nonprofits have started to feed into the growing ReStores web of donated goods. A small business called “BumbleJunk,” which specializes in junk removal and hauling, recently partnered with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake to provide a new, express, paid pick-up service to homeowners and commercial offices.

This will allow even more treasures to reach the floor of ReStores outlets, including the local location in Columbia.

“People who come in to ReStores find items to make their homes more unique and exciting,” said Miller. “They find cool antiques and housewares. A homeowner can get a nice refrigerator, a great couch, or a bed set for an affordable price. ReStores are a viable way to improve the prospects for affordable housing. They also build community and attract volunteers.”