Compared with those in other cities, Washington's housing linkage program is still in its infancy and has a great deal of maturing to do, housing experts say.

From Jersey City to Santa Monica, Calif., city leaders are pressing to solve their housing needs and office growth problems by demanding that office developers donate funds to housing trust funds.

But a recent survey of the still-unproven and much-debated housing linkage concept shows that cities are tackling their programs in vastly different ways.

Housing linkage increased in popularity nationwide after San Francisco adopted a program in 1981. The housing mandate there, which has gone through several modifications, requires developers of buildings exceeding 50,000 square feet to contribute $5.50 for every square foot of office space to a housing group. A developer of a 100,000-square-foot office building, for example, must donate $550,000 in housing funds. The city also has funding stipulations for public art, open spaces, transportation and child care.

Unlike some other cities, San Francisco does not maintain a public trust fund through which linkage monies are distributed. Developers are free to choose where the money is distributed, as long as it is within the city limits and a certain percentage of the funds go to low- and moderate-income groups.

As an option, developers can construct the housing themselves, but that has proved to be a seldom-used alternative.

Since the program was enacted, about $28 million has been obtained for housing through the linkage concept.

Critics of the San Francisco model, and now even some of its original proponents, claim that the linkage concept is not a stable source of funds for housing groups. They point to fluctuating office markets, but even more to a recently adopted ordinance that limits overall office construction in the city to a total of only 500,000 square feet over the next three years.

In a city that has vigorously and successfully fought the tide of office development after a furious rush of new projects changed San Francisco's skyline, such factors mean housing groups are left to fight among themselves for a dwindling source of linkage funds.

"That's a real legitimate concern," said William Rumpf, the housing finance specialist with the mayor's housing and economic development office in San Francisco.

In Washington, developers are attracted to the housing linkage concept because it enables them to bypass a restrictive zoning covenant for a particular location by donating a relatively small amount of housing money. City officials embrace the notion because it provides funds for much-needed housing.

But in San Francisco, where 15 million square feet of office space was added in the past eight years, as well as in other cities nationwide, housing linkage is seen more as a means to stem the frenzy of office development.

"The housing contributions {in San Francisco} aren't used in exchange for some kind of compromise. The only thing developers are getting in San Francisco is the right to build an office building," said Rumpf. "It's not a bonus, which is what Washington's sounds like."

Nonetheless, San Francisco developers have in large part come to accept the city's linkage program. "They realize this is going to be the cost of doing business here," Rumpf said.

Rumpf, commenting on the District's linkage concept, said: "It seems like it could lead to bad planning. {Housing linkage} is good for housing, but zoning is set up for a reason."

Others agreed. "Washington's {linkage} sounds like an onerous system," said William Whitman, assistant to the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Dorn McGrath, chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, a local planning watchdog group, said cities such as Boston, Hartford and San Francisco have "a very long tradition of solid planning and management. There is wide public debate at high levels. We just haven't had that context with which to work."

Fred Greene, the District's planning director, defended Washington and its fledgling housing linkage concept. "Housing linkage to the District is very, very new. The District is really only testing the waters at this stage," he said. He added that other cities have different concerns. "In San Francisco, {housing linkage} was a no-growth tactic," he said. "We want to keep the momentum growing.

Boston adopted its housing linkage program in 1983, and it has since been one of the most controversial and legally tested plans in the nation. The Boston concept mandates that developers contribute $6 per square foot for each square foot of office space in a new office building of more than 100,000 square feet. Of that amount, $1 goes to manpower training, with the remainder placed into new housing. As in San Francisco, Boston developers can choose to build housing instead of donating the money.

Housing money, to be contributed over a seven-year period, goes directly into a trust fund that is controlled by the Boston city government. So far, about $12.25 million has gone into the trust fund, and about 1,500 new housing units are under construction or planned.

"We take all the calculations out of the hands of the developers," Whitman said. "It puts the resources in the control of the people in the administration, as opposed to trying to muscle developers into owing up to agreements."

Boston also differs from Washington in its linkage philosophy. "Office development downtown has an impact on land values; that in turn has an impact on housing prices," Whitman said. "Therefore, linkage payment is a mitigation measure. It is a fee intended to relieve some of the pressure created by office development on housing prices in the city."

But Boston's linkage concept has not been without its share of legal problems and criticisms from angry developers, who claim that the mandatory linkage program discriminates against them.

Jerome Rappaport, a Boston developer who last year brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against Boston's program, said housing linkage adds about $1 per square foot to the overall cost of a project, which then must be unfairly added to office rental rates.

In addition, Rappaport said the Boston program is flawed because builders are encouraged to construct larger office towers by city officials eager to add to the housing kitty.

Rappaport says he believes, however, that in general it is wrong to lay the costs of housing onto the backs of office developers. "Housing should be recognized as a social program, which the community desires to {solve}. The concern I have is not with the attempt to raise funding for housing ... but there are more appropriate ways for doing it."

As a result of the legal flap, the city of Boston has taken its case to the state legislature in an effort to secure official statewide backing, according to Whitman of the redevelopment authority. A bill endorsing the Boston plan recently passed the Massachusetts Senate.

Douglas Porter, director of development policy research at the Urban Land Institute, a national research group composed of developers, builders and other industry leaders, said discrimination is a concern of developers in cities where housing linkage contributions are required.

"There are some developers willing to say that housing needs are important, but they still resent the fact that they are paying fees to get what they want," Porter said.

What the U.S. Supreme Court would say on the matter is unclear and, as yet, untested. Some analysts claim it will only be a matter of time before a disgruntled developer takes a case to the Supreme Court on the basis that such mandatory contributions are discriminatory.

In Hartford, city officials have developed several housing linkage programs. The most debated, at least by developers, is an ordinance requiring them to replace any housing they demolish to make way for an office development.

"The intention was not to eliminate demolition, but to provide some requirement to provide replacement housing and to make those requirements costly enough so there would not be indiscriminate demolition of housing," said Raymond Grasso, Hartford's director of housing and community development.

As for Washington's linkage concept, most agreed that the city must develop some kind of specific policy and not continue its ad hoc program whereby housing linkage proposals are considered on a case-by-case basis.

"I'm a planner, so I believe in planning," said the Urban Land Institute's Porter. "If they are going to do it, they ought to do it with some thoughtfulness and care."