In the 2015–2016 school year, the Howard County School System counted 522 students as homeless. Yet, in February of this year, the county council passed amendments to the county’s Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) that makes it significantly more difficult to build new housing in the county.

APFO is a seemingly common-sense measure that is in place in a number of suburban counties. It is intended to ensure that the county’s public facilities maintain pace with ongoing development. It imposes tests regarding the capacity of the school system and roads to absorb new residents. In areas that are overcrowded, new housing must wait a number of years, allowing time for the schools and roads to catch up.

The APFO amendments passed by the council this year expand the definition of what is an overcrowded school and extend the waiting period before new housing can be built. A map of the county using the new APFO limits shows strikingly few areas where new housing can be created.

Lack of Housing

At the same time, Howard County continues to have a severe shortage of affordable housing. The numbers show this in myriad ways: In 2014 there was a shortage of about 6,650 affordable apartments, with 9,900 renters earning less than $50,000 annually and only 3,247 affordable units. At the same time, for every 100 extremely low income households (for example, a family of four earning less than $20,050 annually) there were only 26 affordable places to live. The Howard County Housing Commission’s waiting list for housing choice vouchers, which helps pay rent, has more than 5,000 names.

The APFO amendments will only deepen the crises faced by many county families today. They will feel the direct impact of the changes in three ways. First, the basic economics of supply and demand will mean that, as the number of new homes in the county declines and demand remains constant, prices will rise. And this calculation underestimates the problem. Howard County continues to be a desirable place to live. The population has been growing, as it has been in the entire region, and there is no sign that rising demand will abate any time soon.

Second, due to APFO, there will be substantially fewer market rate homes, which will result in very little affordable housing built under the county’s Moderate Income Housing Units ordinance. This ordinance mandates that developers create a certain percentage of affordable homes when they build market rate units, or pay a fee to the county that can be used to create affordable housing elsewhere.
Finally, there will be less affordable housing simply because the APFO rules apply to affordable developments as well as market rate, making it more difficult, expensive and time-consuming to build them.

A New Standard of ‘Poor’

This is not a time to ignore the needs of the county’s lower-paid workforce. The affordable housing that is being built today does not serve our poorest neighbors. Only public housing and the housing choice voucher program do that, and these programs have been systematically cut for years to the point that the country is losing about 10,000 public housing units annually.

Rather, new affordable housing serves people earning real incomes — just not enough to afford the high cost of housing. A typical affordable unit would be home to a family of three earning somewhere between $41,000 and $49,200. This is a single-parent household with two children, in a health-care position, or custodial job, or working retail at our stores and shops. Or for a family of four, it is a two-parent family with one in the traditional role of staying home with the children and the other earning up to $54,660. This is almost the median household income for the United States as a whole. The families that will primarily benefit from affordable housing are not poor by any standard we have used before. They are just too poor to afford Howard County.

Exception to Crowding Designation

During the APFO deliberation there were some who framed the issues as a trade-off — the county can have either good, less-crowded schools or affordable housing. This is a false choice. We can, and indeed must, have both top performing schools and additional affordable housing for county residents.

As ultimately passed, the APFO legislation included an exception that would allow certain affordable housing developments to bypass the limits on school crowding. In order to move ahead, such housing will need to be approved by both the county executive and the county council in a public vote. At least 40% of the homes or apartments in the development must be set aside for individuals or families earning no more than 60% of the area median, or $49,200 for a family of three and $54,660 for a family of four.

The county executive and the county council should look for every opportunity to create affordable housing through the exception. The need continues to be overwhelming. The school system has adequate capacity for the student population when viewed as a whole. The relatively small number of new students that will benefit from the educational opportunities in the county can be accommodated.
If Howard County, one of the wealthiest places in the world, cannot find homes for 522 students who already have classroom seats, then who can?

Peter Engel is the executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission, which owns and operates more than 2,000 mixed-income housing units throughout Howard County. He can be reached at [email protected].