The Howard County Council, overriding protests from neighborhood groups, agreed this week to apply for a federal grant to build a $1.7 million housing complex in North Laurel for familes with low or moderate incomes.
The county, acting on behalf of the nonprofit Columbia Housing Corp., is asking the Department of Housing and Urban Development to pay half of the costs of building 30 apartments on a plot of county-owned land on Harmony Lane, about three miles away from the Free State Raceway in the southeastern corner of the county.
Eighteen of the three- and four-bedroom units would be reserved for families of four making less than $26,650 a year, while the remaining 12 would go to families with annual incomes of less than $16,650.
The application will not be reviewed until late October.
Monday's 3-to-1 council vote, and the hostile public hearing that preceded it, reflect the increasingly bitter controversy over locating low-income housing in relatively affluent Howard County, which has prided itself on being a safe, clean suburban community with a rural, conservative tradition.
Elected officials complain of being caught between civic groups trying to maintain the quality of their neighborhoods and the increasing need cited by business leaders and county bureaucrats for affordable housing for low-income residents.
Council member Charles Feaga cast the sole opposing vote, saying that proposals involving building low-income units are not cost-effective and encourage the residents to become dependent on government. Council member Shane Pendergrass, who represents the district where the project would be located, was away on personal business, which did not go unnoticed by her constituents at the meeting who laughed when a letter from her was read.
In Howard, developers and retail store owners recently joined longtime community activists in calling for increased government action, saying the lack of affordable housing has diminished their ability to attract employes to work in fast-food restaurants and offices.
A task force on tenant-landlord relations said last fall the county needed to provide 200 units of low-income housing a year to begin to make a dent in its 1,000-family waiting list for subsidized housing.
At the same time, government officials have said they cannot afford to make that kind of commitment without state and federal money. Even with opportunities such as the HUD grant, some community residents argue that concentrations of poorer residents will lower their property values and increase vandalism and theft in their neighborhoods.
"Low-income housing -- we know it sounds good," said Fred Haviland, a North Laurel resident who spoke against the project at Monday's meeting. "But we feel we don't need this in our area, especially rammed down our throats this way."
The controversy over the Harmony Lane project follows a council decision last fall to give the Columbia Housing Corp. a $300,000 grant to convert a 60-unit apartment complex in Ellicott City for use by low- and moderate-income families. The corporation also owns and manages 350 units in Columbia.
County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, who has called the county's lack of affordable housing the toughest problem facing her administration, said the Harmony Lane project is consistent with her goal "to keep making small increments" and produce projects that will "blend into their surroundings."
At Monday's meeting, however, about 100 North Laurel residents made it clear that they believe that tenants of the Harmony Lane building would be an unwelcome addition to their neighborhood.
Pamela Parrish, described the area around Harmony Lane as a close-knit neighborhood "housing people of similar incomes . . . and similar interests." The county's plan, she said, "would destroy the delicate balance of our sameness. By bringing in residents of about 50 percent of our income levels would introduce the element of the haves and the have-nots."
Other speakers complained about what they perceived as the county's rush to get the project approved. Rochelle Brown, director of the county's office of community development, explained that the council had suspended its usual practice of holding its public hearings and votes on different nights because of the impending deadline for the HUD application.
Council member Angela Beltram, who joined Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray and member Ruth Keeton in supporting the proposal, said that while she doubted the need for low-priced housing in the county was as great as it had been described, Harmony Lane was a small enough project to win her vote.
"If this had been all low-income, I would have been against it, but I think we have a good mix here and Columbia Housing Corp. has a good reputation," she said.