About 40 local officials and community and religious leaders, searching for answers to Howard County's growing affordable housing quandary, recently climbed onto a bus for a day trip to similarly pricey Montgomery County.
There, they talked about the concept of inclusive zoning, which has helped in the construction of more than 11,000 units for low- and moderate-income families over the past 30 years. Organized by Howard's Interfaith Coalition for Affordable Housing, Friday's tour included developments such as King Farm in Rockville and Avalon at Grosvenor, where apartments and townhouses priced for low- and moderate-income families have been blended almost seamlessly into far more expensive communities.
In wealthy Potomac, amid the townhouse and single-family house community of Regency Potomac -- where prices range from $600,000 to $1 million -- there are also 26 affordable townhouses, built in 1996 and sold for $87,000 to $94,000. They remain protected by price controls.
"It's one thing to talk about something in principle," said Leonard S. Vaughan, director of Howard County's Department of Housing and Community Development. "It's another thing to see bricks and mortar."
In Howard, the median price of a single-family house has surpassed $340,000, making it increasingly difficult for lower-income families, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and even teachers and emergency workers to afford housing.
For example, the starting salary for a firefighter trainee is less than $33,000, said Richard Ruehl of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association. Only 17 percent of the county's firefighters live in the county, he said. In Montgomery, working families have faced similar challenges.
"We have some remarkable similarities," Montgomery County Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) told the Howard delegation. He said 22 percent of Montgomery's firefighters live in that county.
"You need to make $19.82 an hour to rent a market-rate apartment," Perez said.
Yet thanks to Montgomery's inclusive zoning law, which was passed more than three decades ago, scores of possibilities exist for housing that might not have otherwise, Perez said. The law requires that 12.5 percent to 15 percent of the houses in new subdivisions of 20 or more units be priced for rental or sale to families making from $40,000 to $68,000. The law also requires that 40 percent of those units be offered to local nonprofit housing agencies for use by low- and moderate-income families.
Howard County has 10 zoning districts where new development must include housing for modest-income families. Typically, that set-aside is 10 percent, although the requirement is 15 percent for some areas along the Route 1 corridor, said Steve Lafferty, deputy director of the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning.
"Very few people recognize that Howard County has made the effort to expand the number of districts where affordable housing will be built," Lafferty said.
For example, he said, 100 of the roughly 1,100 units planned for the upscale Maple Lawn housing development in Fulton are designated as modest-income housing. At Routes 29 and 216 on a former dairy and turkey farm, Maple Lawn is a mixed-use development, where single-family houses cost $650,000 or more.
Lafferty said that the developer had initially proposed 50 affordable-housing units for Maple Lawn but that the county Zoning Board required 100 when it approved plans for the new community in 2001.
In Howard, members of the Interfaith Coalition, which comprises about two-dozen religious congregations and organizations, want to expand middle-income housing requirements beyond the county's 10 districts. It is asking that the county require that 15 percent of new housing in developments of 10 or more houses be affordable to families with incomes of $58,000 to $87,000.