Motivated by soaring rental and home prices in the region, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on Wednesday unveiled a collection of housing proposals designed to ease the cost burden on county residents.
Nicknamed the HOME Package, the policy bundle includes local legislation designed to curb Howard County rent prices; a bill that would help grow the area’s stock of moderately priced housing units by allowing the Howard County Housing Commission to partner with organizations to convert existing rental units to affordable units; and a state-level proposal that would enable the county to offer tax credits to property owners to incentivize new affordable units.
Ball said the county also plans to invest $2 million for security deposit assistance and rent relief for Howard County Public School students and families, and Howard Community College students, experiencing housing insecurity; $100,000 for people with disabilities to use for rental unit modifications; and $3 million for affordable housing creation, including $1.6 million for the Patuxent Commons affordable housing project. There, 25% of the units there will be designated as “deeply affordable” and designated for adults with disabilities, with another 65% of the units marked down below market rate. Those funds would be pulled from a combination of sources, including the county’s Community Renewal Fund and its Housing Opportunities Trust Fund.
Ball referred to the policies in a news conference Wednesday as “bold, innovative solutions tailored to address our housing challenges head-on.”
“This is a thoughtful policy approach that will support tenants while also encouraging property owners and land owners to continue to invest in modern facilities, great living environments and an excellent quality of life for tenants through important building upgrades,” he said.
Minutes into the conference, protesters with the Howard County Rent Stabilization Coalition held up signs calling for fee caps, no exemptions for new construction, and other demands they say have not been met under the county’s proposal. One protester, Jake Burdett, who positioned himself directly in front of the lectern from which county leaders and housing advocates were speaking, was forcibly removed from the building. He returned to the room a minute later but remained on the perimeter of the event.
Officials ended the news conference without taking questions.
“Housing is an important issue that many are passionate about,” said Safa Hira, a spokeswoman for the county executive’s administration, in an email following the event. “While we understand that everyone won’t agree with us taking bold, thoughtful action, we remain committed to this comprehensive home package which will help address expanding housing opportunities and combat housing insecurities for people of all ages and abilities.”
Ball, a second-term Democrat in Maryland’s wealthiest county, said at a media briefing Tuesday that his administration has been monitoring the “skyrocketing” hike in rent and homeownership prices and seeking solutions. Rent prices in the county have grown 23% in three years, Ball said. The local legislation to prevent “rent gouging,” Ball said, would limit annual rent increases to the lesser of inflation plus 5%, or 10%.
“Now is the time to embrace, and meet, the moment,” Ball said, calling the proposals both “bold and transformational.”
The state has limited tools to affect what gets built at the local level, said Maryland Secretary of Housing and Community Development Jake Day at the Wednesday conference. However, jurisdictions that lead projects to make housing more affordable can trust the state will partner with them, he said.
“Let us never forget that the consequences of a supply shortage and the consequences of an affordability crisis hurt the most vulnerable citizens most,” Day said.
Ball’s action follows a rapid succession of other measures championed by county executives seeking to make progress on housing affordability, an already pressing topic exacerbated by the COVID-19 economy. Fueled by a flush of government stimulus money, increased savings and relatively low mortgage interest rates, buyers flocked to the real estate market both regionally and nationally, inciting intense competition over a finite supply of units.
The market overheated to such an extent that competition caused many potential homebuyers to postpone their plans, leading to a run on rental units and, in some cases, fueling bidding wars over the remaining housing stock. Low-income earners felt the brunt of the burden as moderately and affordably priced options became harder to finance because of labor shortages, materials cost surges, and land use and zoning constraints making new construction more difficult.
While the number of home sales began falling in Maryland in late 2021, median sales prices remain high and homes are selling more quickly than they did before the coronavirus pandemic began, according to data from Bright MLS. The median home price in Howard County, which stands at $522,000 as of September, leads all other counties in the Baltimore metro region, including Anne Arundel ($475,000), Carroll ($452,500), Harford ($380,000) and Baltimore ($345,000). Baltimore City’s median home sales price has fallen by more than 5% over the last year, according to Bright MLS, standing now at $213,000.
The city and many of its neighbors have attempted to make headway in promoting housing affordability. A pair of Baltimore City bills, designed to make a portion of all new development accessible to people earning less than the area median income level, has stalled in the City Council. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman introduced a similar bill earlier this month to create more housing availability for the county’s “essential workers,” many of whom are priced out of living where they work. And Baltimore County housing officials say they are on track to meet their goals to create more affordable housing units by 2027, as part of a voluntary consent agreement it signed in 2011 to rest a housing discrimination lawsuit.
Howard County’s attempt at making its housing stock more plentiful and affordable runs parallel to its adequate public facilities ordinance, which restricts growth to prevent overcrowding. Ball, on Tuesday, said the proposed legislative package strikes a balance between minimizing congestion and opening up more residential opportunities in the county.
“We have an enviable quality of life,” Ball said, pointing to Howard’s high-performing public school system, investment in environmental conservation and housing demand. “We want to ensure we have an appropriate amount of housing stock, which needs to be increased over time, and the facilities so people can live here and have that quality of life.”
It’s not clear, however, how county housing advocates will receive the county executive’s package. In a news release sent prior to Wednesday’s news conference, the Howard County Rent Stabilization Coalition — composed of a mix of groups including the Progressive Democrats of Howard County, Maryland Center for Economic Policy, and Indivisible Howard County Immigration Action Team — called for “robust rent stabilization measures,” including a 3% or consumer price index cap on rent hikes. The group also questioned what, if any, exemptions would be made available to developers.
“We stand firm on the necessity of a comprehensive and loophole-free rent stabilization bill to foster a just and affordable housing landscape in Howard County,” the coalition said in a statement.