As Maryland's shortage of affordable housing appears to be deepening, a coalition of government officials, community activists and housing experts are coming together to try to find solutions.

They will convene a forum in March that will look at the problem in St. Mary's County, which like other rapidly growing and formerly mostly rural areas in the state is facing its worst affordable housing shortage in decades.

Plans for the March 7 forum at Camp Maria, a Catholic retreat on Breton Bay south of Leonardtown, gained momentum last week as the St. Mary's County Board of Commissioners unanimously pledged to support an independent study of factors contributing to the inadequate stock of affordable housing for lower-income residents.

Housing Authority Director Dennis L. Nicholson indicated he would attend the summit, organized by the Lexington Park Focus Group, a collection of Southern Maryland activists formed last year to address development issues in the section of the county where sprawl is most pronounced.

Three expansions of operations at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in the past decade triggered dramatic growth that has consumed vast areas of once rural land. Thousands of well-paid defense contractors and high-tech industry workers flocked to the county, causing the apartment vacancy rate to plunge to 4.1 percent, the lowest ever, housing officials said.

What's more, a multimillion-dollar plan to revitalize Lexington Park will add a new public library, post office and naval aviation museum near Tulagi Place along the booming Route 235 corridor. All of that activity, housing experts note, has prompted property values to rise and rents to surge to levels beyond the reach of many county residents.

"What happens when you create development parameters?" asked Tammy Vitale, Southern Maryland representative of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a statewide environmental advocacy group. "Housing costs go up. And we're trying to make sure affordable housing remains in the dialogue. Lexington Park should be developed, but in doing so we can't forget the people who are there now."

The Washington region's robust economy over the past decade has fueled a population boom. As more of those new people have pushed into suburbia's fringe, the stock of low- and moderate-income housing has been depleted, something that mirrors similar problems with the housing supply in the established suburban counties. Just last week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) unveiled an ambitious plan to spend $7 million in government funds to double the number of affordable housing units there.

But housing experts say the shortage is most acute in once-rural but fast-growing counties such as St. Mary's. The rising demand, they note, allows apartment landlords to command higher rents for units that often are out of compliance with county livability codes, which have not been revised in the past decade.

However, "the conflict of enforcing livability standards and housing affordability certainly is not unique to St. Mary's," said James R. Cohen, a professor and land use specialist with the University of Maryland at College Park's Urban Studies Department.

Government officials acknowledge the existing code is weak and woefully unenforceable. As a result, an unknown number of units across the county have fallen into disrepair. Some low- and moderate-income residents sometimes live without regular electricity service or running water, officials said.

Officials and activists note that perhaps the most visible example of the problems that plague the affordable housing market is Lexington Manor, the cluster of apartments commonly known as the "Flattops," built five decades ago as military housing. The dilapidated neighborhood is within two miles of the center of Lexington Park's redevelopment zone.

A $42 million restoration and redevelopment proposal for the Flattops has become bogged down over county objections seeking to limit the number of housing units in the project. County attorneys argue that most of the development's 342 units have deteriorated beyond habitability and rehabilitating them would place residents within the flight path of jets from Pax River.

However, Flattops owner John Chamberlin and developer Louis Grasso say limiting the number of restorable units would significantly increase rents charged for the remaining 150 units, pushing them beyond the means of most current occupants, many of whom receive some form of government housing subsidy.

Nicholson, the Housing Authority director, noted the housing market is targeting the county's newest residents, who are largely the reason the median income for a family of four has risen to more than $65,000 from $47,000 five years ago.

Under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's fair market rent guidelines, low-income St. Mary's residents can afford only 6.4 percent of roughly 532 available rental units, according to department figures.

Organizers of the March 7 forum have invited state housing officials and representatives of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington.

At the same time, the University of Maryland's Cohen will help lead the study that will evaluate potential housing resources and draft a revised livability code.

The results of the study, Cohen told St. Mary's County commissioners on Tuesday, are expected to be released by summer's end.

County Commissioner Joseph F. Anderson (D-Drayden) said Tuesday's decision to support the study helps the board "take specific action" in shaping legislation that bolsters tenants' rights. Anderson has a particular sensibility to current housing issues, having lived in the Flattops as a young Vista volunteer in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Shelby P. Guazzo (R-Chaptico) suggested there should be legislation requiring owners of St. Mary's property who live elsewhere to hire local property managers. "Often," she said, "there is a disconnect" between a tenant's request for repairs and the service that is actually done. "The [manager] should have the power to fix certain things," Guazzo said.