Archive for the ‘Housing’ category

Band-Aids for Affordable Housing

26 October 2012

A new controversy involves the plan for the City of Rockville to buy the Fireside Park Apartments, a 236-unit complex in the Hungerford area. The purchase will cost $36 million, and Montgomery County is offering to chip in.  Rockville plans to subsidize apartments for households earning up to 60% of the county median income.  For a family of four, for example, subsidized apartments  would be available if their income was as much as $65,000.

A few thoughts:

– Creating public housing projects has rarely been an effective solution to achieving affordable housing.

– Homelessness is a serious problem.  The county should be looking towards long-term structural solutions, not just band-aids.  That begins with recognizing that MoCo policies are largely responsible for causing homelessness (and inflated home prices), and those policies must be changed to alleviate it.

– MoCo government seems to have no understanding of the economics of housing, or how their policies are making housing too expensive.  Rockville is competing with a private firm seeking to purchase the complex.  That is wasteful.  Richard Nelson, director of MoCo’s Department of Housing, defended the purchase: “Their objective — return on equity — is not the public policy of supporting affordable housing.”   Increasing the supply of housing, by economic reasoning, will help alleviate the high price of housing.  Too bad Nelson seems to be ignorant of this.   Governments in general, and especially Montgomery County, are more often blinded by the attraction of building something they can point to and say “That’s ours.”  The edifice complex wins out over an effective policy to improve housing.


Helping Low-Income Residents — A Valuable Change in Zoning Regulations

9 September 2012

The county planning board is proposing a beneficial change in zoning regulations, to make them less restrictive.   The change would make it easier for homeowners to create accessory apartments (better known as “mother-in-law suites”) in their homes.  These apartments have kitchen facilities, bathrooms, and a separate entrance.

There’s a public hearing on the proposal on Tuesday, at 7:30 pm,  in the council building.

There are clearly problems that can be caused or exacerbated by these apartments.  They can increase crowding, including parking.   There’s a more general concern about stress on public and private services and infrastructure.

But they also have multiple benefits:
— They provide a way for families to live close to each other, when it is not otherwise financially feasible.  The classic example is a separate apartment for an elderly parent, who otherwise could not afford to live near a grown child.  Often, a mother-in-law suite is the difference between an elderly parent living at home and institutionalization.

– They help alleviate the problem of housing affordability by increasing the housing stock.  This county has a serious affordable housing problem.  Simple economics suggests that one reason for that problem is insufficient supply of housing units to meet the demand.

– They help provide additional income for people who are struggling in the bad economy..

– -They help alleviate unnecessary sprawl.  Cheaper housing can be difficult to build in the densely populated part s of the county.  If not for these apartments, people might be looking to build new housing on unused green space.

If we are serious about alleviating housing costs, and helping the poor get on their feet — this zoning change would be a change for the better – and deserves support.

The Hideous Heart of Zoning

11 June 2008

When I was about eleven, I loved the Edgar Allen Poe story, “The Telltale Heart”. At the end of the story, the protagonist rips out the floorboards of his house to reveal the heart of his dismembered victim, hidden underneath.

In the town of Chevy Chase, resident (and continual political candidate) Deborah Vollmer rips open the floorboards on zoning regulation. The town just passed zoning regs limiting what kinds of homes people may build on their lots. The regs are more restrictive than what MoCo allows, of course. Vollmer is not satisfied with the restrictions, insisting that they need to be even more stringent. She points out that there are environmental ramifications of tearing down homes; waste disposal, you see, and such. When others point out that the additions and new homes are built to ensure better energy efficiency than the old homes, she won’t back down. The pretense of environmental impacts or esthetics are dropped, and we see the true, malevolence behind the zoning impulse. Some homes shouldn’t be torn down, she told the Montgomery Sentinel — like the one next door to her.

And that’s what zoning always comes down to; Peter doesn’t like what Paul is doing with his property, so he tries to use the force of Leviathan to control Paul’s property. Vollmer (and other zoning advocates) are fundamentally conservative; they don’t like the idea of things changing, and they don’t want to see a house next door that’s different from what they are used to, or different from what the other neighbors have, or different from her own perception of what the house “should” look like.

Well, you know what? It’s not their business to decide what the house “should” look like. My neighbors may not like seeing my ugly punim when I come out in the morning, but, for crying out loud, they’re not trying to use the power of the government to force me to get plastic surgery. Live with it, Deb.

Postscript:  I just read an article on the Post“s “Maryland Moment” blog, recounting the comments of the county’s new Planning Director.  It seemed such a perfect example of the sneering paternalism that I referred to in this post:

A few minutes later, up to the podium strolled Rollin Stanley, the county’s new planning director, who has ruffled some feathers by telling developers their plans are “horrible” and by criticizing the county, which he said seems at times more concerned about due process than about getting well-designed communities . . . The mind-set in this country is wrong,” said Stanley, a native of Canada who was the planning chief in St. Louis before arriving in Montgomery a few months ago.

Imagine the nerve of those little people, being more concerned about due process than what Rollin knows to be best for them. Their mindset is just wrong, that’s all.


Property Tax Disclosure

9 October 2007

Currently, home sellers are required to inform buyers of what is currently being paid in property taxes. That amount is not very informative to the prospective buyer, however, because the tax usually jumps after a sale. (The 10% cap on property tax increases gets lifted when the property changes hands.) So buyers who find out what sellers are currently paying, aren’t getting good information about the tax amount they would be responsible for paying.

The county council opened up discussion yesterday on Bill 24-07, Real Property – Property Tax – Disclosure. The bill would require sellers of property to inform buyers of the property tax that would need to be paid in the year of the sale

It doesn’t seem logical to demand that the sellers provide this information, since they wouldn’t know. They would have to go to the county to get that estimate, just as the buyer would. Why make the sellers intermediaries? Nor does it seem practical. What happens if the seller’s estimate is incorrect? Would the seller bear some sort of legal liability?

If it’s not logical, and not practical for sellers to be responsible for this, then the county shouldn’t try to pass the responsibility to the current homeowners. Insteady, the county should provide some mechanism for prospective buyers to easily get this information.

Most of the time on Leviathan Montgomery I’m whining about things the county is doing that they shouldn’t be doing. Today, I’m whining about them not doing what they should be doing. Just can’t satisfy some people, I guess.

One Approach to Lowering Housing Costs

28 August 2007

Thank God that Montgomery doesn’t have to deal with the problems of New Orleans. Hurricanes, flooding, looting, and environmental contamination would leave us in a miserable state, as well. We can learn something from their tragedy, though.

The cost of rebuilding housing is one of the main factors inhibiting the regrowth of the city. In Metropolis magazine, Andres Duany offers an interesting take on the problem. Duany is one of the most honored urban planners in the country. A founder of the “New Urbanism” school, he has won awards from the American Planning Association, Institute for Classical Architecture, the American Institute of Architects, and others. His firm is especially famous for the design of Seaside, Florida and (closer to home) the Kentlands in Gaithersburg.

Duany makes the fascinating link between the charm and culture of New Orleans and the historically low cost of housing there. Because housing was inexpensive, people didn’t have to work as hard to pay for it, and had more leisure time – for cooking, for music, socializing friends and family.

Why was housing less expensive? Here’s where Montgomery may have something to learn, from the style that Duany terms “self-housing”: Simple and inexpensive homes, with few frills, often paid for with cash or barter. They often weren’t professionally built, but they served their purpose, without consigning owners to working two jobs to pay the mortgage. Duany laments that housing can’t be built this way anymore, because of new and expensive housing codes and the demands and costs of permits and city licensing requirements. These expenses are making it impossible for sufficient housing to be built in a city desperate for it.

Now, when it comes to overpriced housing, Montgomery doesn’t yield leadership to anyone. Our problems of insufficient – and affordable – housing are as bad as any locality that hasn’t been hit by a Class 4 hurricane. So what lessons can we learn from New Orleans problem? Here’s Duany’s recommendation:

“What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections—the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Somehow there must be a process whereupon people can build simple, functional houses for themselves, either by themselves or by barter with professionals. There must be free house designs that can be built in small stages and that do not require an architect, complicated permits, or inspections; there must be common-sense technical standards.”

To be sure, this doesn’t mean the end of McMansions, nor that Potomac would become overrun with bungalows. It simply provides a reasonable means for people to be able to build and buy affordable housing, without having to rely on handouts. This could represent the way to allow the market to provide the lower-end housing that we so desperately need. To those who might suggest that safety and “common-sense technical standards” can’t be achieved without expensive bureaucratic mandates, Duany answers simply:

“However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option.”

Agreed. Duany continues:

“..However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option.”

Sound thinking.

Bulldozing a Common Sense Housing Policy

5 July 2007

In order to have permission to build housing, the county requires that developers also build a certain amount of lower-cost housing units. The number of Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs, to you) is based on a proportion of the number of total housing units being built.

For the moment, let’s put aside the significant issues: Why is there a shortage of affordable housing? What are the unintended consequences of this policy? And are there better ways to improve the cost of housing in the county?

The regulation so well reflects the Montgomery County way of doing things: Just do it because I said so!

Okay, it’s not that bad; it’s worse. The county used to allow developers to bribe – er, buy their way out of the requirement, by paying into an affordable housing fund. As you might predict, having developers build new housing turned out to be a more effective way of getting housing than piling up a county fund. So three years ago, the county council virtually eliminated that option.

There were two situations, though, where builders were allowed to pay into the fund instead of building the affordable units. One such exception was made for condominium units whose monthly fees would put the units beyond the reach of the lower-income families the policy aims to help. It didn’t make much sense to require builders to build housing that couldn’t be occupied. The other exception was where environmental constraints made the additional housing infeasible. For example, constructing extra units in high rises becomes impracticable because of the cost of additional steel-reinforced concrete.

The Gazette reports that these common-sense exceptions are very rarely used; in fact, they have only been used once in the past year. But politicians find that they can get tremendous political mileage by vilifying the people who build homes. So Council Members Leventhal and Trachtenberg have sponsored legislation to eliminate that little-used, common sense exception. Common sense, after all, stands little chance against self-aggrandizing politicians.

A Council hearing is scheduled for July 19th.

Takoma Park Expels the Poor

30 March 2007

There’s a pathetic story in the Gazette this week, putting another face on the housing crunch in the county. In this case, it’s the city of Takoma Park doing its best to force people to live elsewhere.

Here we have a hard-working family renting out apartments in two buildings, but after 25 years, can’t afford to rent the apartments anymore. The city has rent control, you see — the bane of housing wherever it has been implemented. Takoma Park’s version is particularly restrictive; base rents are set at 70% of the CPI (consumer price index). As the costs of taxes, repairs and maintenance, and utilities have skyrocketed, therefore, they are not allowed to raise rents to keep up with expenses.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the family is having a hard time selling the buildings. Who is going to operate a business that is commanded to lose money? Either the buildings will go condo, or be shifted to a different use. The people who are paying $550 per month for a one-bedroom apartment will probably have to move elsewhere. If the city keeps strangling the rental market, the residences in Takoma will become more heavily weighted towards owners, as the city keeps forcing renters to move elsewhere. The mandate from Takoma Park is clear: “Go away, poor people. We don’t want you here.”