Work here, live somewhere else
The popular economic development slogan these days is “Live Here, Work Here.” Unfortunately, for thousands of teachers, firefighters, police officers, and other mid-grade professionals, it’s nothing more than a mocking reminder that the cost of a house in Frederick County is far above their reach.
Many current county residents find themselves dwelling in a home that they could not afford if they were in the real estate market today. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to Frederick County, either. Every county in the region is feeling the same consequence fueled by the same forces.
Local government leaders have been talking about affordable housing for decades. In fact, that’s part of the problem. There’s been a good deal of talk, but not a lot of action. The closest we’ve come to action are the efforts of Interfaith Housing of Western Maryland and Habitat for Humanity, non-profits which spend their time and efforts building, not talking.
The County Affordable Housing Council petitioned a study of workforce housing, and hired some experts to conduct it. You can read the full study on the county’s website at: http://www.co.frederick.md.us/Housing/info/HousingStudyReport10-05.pdf. A summary of the recommendations from the consultant are listed below with commentary interlineated:
Frederick County should work regionally to address the shortage of affordable housing. The county should maintain membership in Wash COG (Washington Council of Governments), but it should also explore other avenues for working collaboratively with neighboring counties. Jointly, counties can better leverage additional state resources. The county might also consider taking the lead in organizing a regional housing conference with other Maryland counties, the District and Virginia.
Comment: This recommendation is for those who don’t think there’s already been enough talk. It suggests we talk more, and talk to even more people! Truth is more talk won’t build a single unit of workforce housing. We need solutions.
Implementing county policies and programs that allow for ongoing residential development sufficient to accommodate the projected growth of the county’s population. Specifically, the county should support proposed legislation to replace impact fees with excise fees, structured to allow sufficient residential development to meet the county’s growth needs. It should also work with communities in order to increase understanding of the housing problems facing the county and ensure that no residents suffer from housing discrimination.
Comment: Okay, good, a solution! The consultant is using “expertspeak,” which is language that conveys a message in such a manner as to force you to hire them back to interpret what they said after they’ve gone. Fortunately, most of us have read so much “expertspeak” we can provide our own interpretation. The consultant says that the county commissioners need to allow enough new residential growth to meet the projected housing demand. That message will go over well at Winchester Hall! Talk about the messenger getting shot!
The consultant goes on to tell the county they need to convert the impact fee into an excise tax. The idea is the same; collect revenue from new houses to pay for schools, roads, and other facility needs. The deal is that impact fees cannot be waived or exempted. Once created, they must be universally applied.
The affordable housing community seeks to have these levies waived or exempted for houses that meet their price goals. The only way they can do that is to have impact fees switched to excise taxes, which local government can manipulate. Unfortunately, the builders and developers are adamantly opposed to the switch. They think the commissioners will “monkey around” with excise taxes, since they have more authority over that mechanism. So the for-profit builders will oppose the non-profit builders.
Identifying sources of capital to provide “gap” funding to make financially feasible the creation of an increased supply of affordable homeownership opportunities and rental housing. Creating affordable housing requires public resources, in one form or another, where market rate housing generally does not. Sources for this funding need to be explored and maximized.
Comment: The consultant suggests we create a county subsidy to allow for more lots to be developed into affordable housing units. Frederick’s county commissioners have already set aside over a million dollars for this, but that commitment is a one-time deal. The recommendation is to set up a recurring funding commitment.
Increase the capacity of nonprofit developers. Often it is nonprofit developers who create, operate, and maintain workforce and affordable housing. The county should make efforts to enhance their capacity to create new housing and to increase the services they provide.
Comment: We’re talking about Interfaith and Habitat as an example. Increase capacity means allow more lots to be set aside and dedicated to a non-profit developer for the creation of workforce or affordable housing. All the no-growth community hears is “more lots,” not more lots for workforce housing. Even though there is significant merit, the benefits are lost in the cacophony of rhetoric about too many houses being built.
Strengthening and expanding the county’s MPDU Program. The MPDU program is a promising effort to harness the power of the private sector to meet the housing needs of local workforce residents. The program can be improved by streamlining processes and providing mechanisms to ensure that all provisions are fully implemented. For example, efforts should be made to allow for the acquisition of the full 40 percent of MPDU units that are set aside for the Affordable Housing Commission and nonprofit developers.
Comment: Here the consultant recommends that the county add some teeth to the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. This program directs a developer to set aside a percentage of units in a new development as “moderately priced,” meaning below market rate. The ordinance specifies that these cannot stand out, but have to reflect the design elements incorporated into the overall community. MPDU language has been around since 2000, but we’re just seeing the first developments with these units in them coming on line now. The consultant recommends giving these development rights to a non-profit housing developer as a way to get the units built sooner, suggesting that market rate private developers will drag their feet.
At a summit on Workforce Housing organized by the Chamber of Commerce, the county’s Economic Development Office, and the Affordable Housing Council, we learned that the average price of a new home in Frederick County is now over $600,000. This is where the clash of wills over the whole question of residential growth hits a wall.
As stated in the report, the county faces a painful conflict between inadequate infrastructure and overly expensive housing. If the commissioners raise fees to fund adequate infrastructure, they price first time and working families out of the American dream. If, on the other hand, they exempt certain groups from fee or tax levies, they may not generate enough revenue to provide school seats and road and highway improvements.
Candidates for county commissioner will have to be able to answer the question: What specifically will you do to provide houses for sheriff’s deputies, teachers, and mid-level county workers in the private sector? Doing nothing is not an option, and, Heaven knows, we’ve had enough talk already!