Leggett Urges Rehab of Units, Speedier Regulatory Process

County Executive Isaiah Leggett says it's
County Executive Isaiah Leggett says it's "cheaper" to rehab than build. (Lucian Perkins - Twp)
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By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 5, 2008

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said yesterday that the county needs to push to rehabilitate inexpensive residential units as it attempts to overhaul its approach to affordable housing.

It is "easier and cheaper" to hold on to housing than to build affordable units, he said at an annual housing conference.

Leggett (D) also urged officials to provide tax incentives to county employees who are trying to buy homes in Montgomery, speed up county review of developments if they also include affordable units and, in some instances, loosen zoning restrictions on new construction.

The system is too slow, he said, and should reward builders who construct affordable housing. That could result in construction of taller, denser projects in more parts of the county. Montgomery's new growth policy also encourages more density to help absorb expected population growth.

In the past 30 years, the county has relied on new construction to create affordable units as a byproduct. Its program requires anyone planning to build more than 20 units to set aside at least 12.5 percent for moderate-income residents. But the housing program and a separate loan program haven't kept pace with demand, officials said.

Some of that is attributable to waivers the county gave to developers, who for years were allowed to buy their way out of building the units with contributions to a housing fund. Officials rarely fined developers and builders who didn't obey the rules.

Leggett, who made increasing affordable housing a cornerstone of his 2006 campaign, pledged to expand the county's $39 million loan program for rehabilitation and purchase of affordable units. He proposed increasing it to $54 million this year and up to $100 million in two years and using bonds to pay for it.

In the past decade, about 35,000 units have become unaffordable in Montgomery as prices have risen and wages have flattened, county data show.

Leggett outlined the new approach to an audience of several hundred developers, builders and officials from nonprofit groups who work with homeless and low-income residents. Many of his proposals are in a report by an affordable housing task force that he convened last year. The task force also suggested that the county allow more apartments in private homes and loosen zoning rules.

Leggett's views received a mixed response from local leaders.

Norman M. Dreyfuss, who built Leisure World in Silver Spring, among other projects, and was conference co-chairman, liked Leggett's plan for a speed-up but wasn't sure it would occur.

"It's wonderful. But is it bureaucratically possible?" he asked.

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