Housing activist Barbara Peart is a bit cynical about Howard County's conversion to the cause of affordable housing.

She said many people in the county wanted little to do with assisted housing until the lack of it came to be regarded as an economic, rather than social, problem.

But whatever people's motivations, the important thing is that the drive for affordable housing is gaining momentum, Peart said. The County Council's approval July 2 of a new housing commission is a reflection of the change, she added.

It also is a reflection of the federal government's insistence that $3.3 million available for county housing efforts go only to an independent housing authority, county officials said.

The authority is expected to oversee the building of new housing projects and take over existing programs. It also will have the power to float bonds, take advantage of federal and state housing aid, and accept gifts of land or buildings.

The commission is just one initiative the county hopes to employ to create more housing opportunities, according to the recently approved 20-year blueprint for growth. Other possibilities include a county-run mortgage assistance program and zoning changes that would force developers to provide affordable units in new housing projects or contribute to a housing fund.

Council members are expected to appoint the seven members of the housing commission this month. Nominees forwarded to the council by County Executive Elizabeth Bobo (D) include banker John Bond, lawyer Jerome Colt, developer John Liparini and several longtime housing activists.

Peart, a leader of the Howard County Housing Alliance, is among the latter. She said many of her pleas for help were ignored until the late 1980s, when "the consciousness of the upper and middle classes was raised that the lack of affordable housing affected them too."

"Before that, the people who couldn't afford to live in Howard County would move out and become invisible," Peart said.

They are not invisible now. County employers frequently complain about the trouble they are having finding workers to fill entry-level or service-related jobs. Parents express concern that their adult children cannot afford to buy the kind of homes they grew up in.

"There's no question that housing has not been a popular cause in Howard County," said council member Paul R. Farragut (D-District 4). "But the {economic} arguments are becoming more persuasive."

The county defines affordable housing as homes within the reach of moderate-income families earning no more than $30,160 annually and low-income families earning no more than $18,850 a year. The county anticipates it will need 5,333 new units for families in those income brackets over the next 20 years, or about 267 a year. About 3,400 affordable housing units have been built over the past 20 years, and that type of housing now represents about 5 percent of the countywide stock. About 2,500 families are still in need of such housing, according to county statistics.

Council member C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3) said the county's target of creating 5,333 new units over 20 years is too low. He accused fellow council members of paying lip service to affordable housing during last week's General Plan debate.

After all, council members thought nothing of increasing by 10,000 a county goal of preserving 20,000 acres of farmland, Gray said. If they were willing to set such ambitious targets for farmland, why not be equally ambitious in setting targets of 400 or 500 a year for new housing units? His amendments were rejected.

"It just seemed numbers were being picked from the air," Farragut said.

The housing commission's first task after organizing itself probably will be to wrap up negotiations between the county and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the $1.7 million purchase of a foreclosed town house development, according to the county's community development administrator, Rochell Brown Jr.

The county wants to purchase the 24-unit Allfa Pines development in Ellicott City using HUD funds. But some HUD administrators are uncomfortable with the fact that some units feature whirlpool tubs, microwave ovens and ice-making refrigerators installed by the developer before it defaulted on its loans.