ANNAPOLIS – The Prince George’s County Council heard from a panel of experts and representatives from housing organizations and industries during a session at its annual retreat held Wednesday, Jan. 6.
The panel was titled “Comprehensive Housing Strategy” and provided an opportunity for the council to hear about the current state of housing in the county and region and suggested solutions from the panelists.
The panel was included in this year’s retreat because Council Chair Derrick Davis wanted to have a comprehensive strategy in place by the end of 2016. It was an effort he started as chair of the Transportation, Housing and the Environment (THE) Committee – a title which now passes to Councilman Todd Turner. Turner said it may take more than a year for the committee, and the council as a whole, to develop a strategy of the scope Davis envisions.
“This is just the beginning of the process,” Davis said. “We’re looking to make some very good sausages here. It’s going to require lots of different flavors.”
To that end, the panel featured speakers involved with many different aspects of the housing problem to provide their viewpoints and data to the council.
James Dinegar, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, opened up the discussion by noting that transportation is a resource closely related to housing. He noted the Metro system is very condensed geographically in Prince George’s County compared, to elsewhere in the region, and is an “underutilized resource.” He also suggested the possibility of linking Baltimore and the Washington region more closely to capitalize on the opportunities offered in Baltimore.
Hillary Chapman, housing program manager for the Council of Governments, and Peter Titian, senior research associate at The Urban Institute, spoke next, presenting highlights from a report their organizations jointly commissioned to look at housing security in the region.
The report showed 40 percent of Prince Georgians are classified as low income, very low income or extremely low income, which means they earn at or below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), calculated at $106,100 yearly for a family of four. That figure is 33 percent throughout the region. A majority (74 percent) of extremely low-income families in the county are severely cost-burdened, meaning more than half of their income is spent on rent, as well as 16 percent of very low income residents and two percent of low income residents. That is in-line with regional trends, but the Prince George’s figures for middle and high-income families are better than those regionally, as zero percent of residents in those two categories were classified as severely cost-burdened in the report.
The report revealed a deficit of 94,200 housing units for extremely low-income renters in the region. Of those, Prince George’s County needs 18,400.
According to the report, the other local jurisdictions in the region provide between 24 and 69 percent of public funding for housing and related expenses, while the county only provides three percent.
On the positive side, the report showed that the county has a surplus of 12,200 housing units for those with very low incomes (at or below 50 percent of AMI), as well as the average sale price for a home in the county is about 30 percent lower than the maximum that would be affordable by low-income buyers.
Melissa Bondi, CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, talked about the work her organization does on housing policy, which includes underwriting loans and grants for major projects. They have helped underwrite $43.2 million worth of investment in Prince George’s County, she said. Enterprise also has a faith-based development initiative to help churches use their land holdings in pursuit of social justice goals like affordable housing.
Bondi also said the type of new development going on is important to the housing strategy. She claimed that 77 percent of millennials want to live in an urban corridor where they don’t need to own a vehicle and can perhaps even walk or bike to work.
“But generally speaking, we are still building housing for the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s,” she said.
Two developers, Jeff Caruso, president of Caruso Homes, and Tom Mateya, director of land development for Toll Brothers, also spoke on the panel, saying they are important stakeholders and partners in the process as well.
“Our consumers (who purchase expensive homes) are very healthful for the county,” Caruso said. “They attract the best retail. They pay more taxes.”
All of the panelists also presented suggestions for the council to take into consideration as they formulate the housing strategy. Caruso suggested reforming the peer review system, because the peers are often rivals who can purposefully find fault to slow or stall a project. Mateya suggested becoming more open to townhouses and removing from the policies non-value-added requirements that aren’t as relevant in today’s market.
He also said many consumers are looking for multi-generational housing with, for example, two master suites on the first floor, but it’s a “nightmare” to get such things approved. Bondi seconded the suggestion to streamline the development process. And Dinegar added that a priority should be to reform the “abysmal” permitting process.
Bondi also said more money for affordable housing was needed, but other funding sources such as federal grants, members of the business and banking communities and philanthropists could supplement county dollars.
Scott Nordheimer, senior advisor to Urban Atlantic, added that many of the “new wealth techies” could be persuaded to support affordable housing projects because they tend to have a focus on social impact and awareness.
Mateya said a reason his company constructs moderately-priced houses in Montgomery County is because they are required to. He also said in marketing new housing projects, the term used to refer to the project can greatly impact the community response, as “workforce housing” has a different connotation than “subsidized housing” in the public mind.
Each of the panelists urged the council to be thorough and thoughtful in their approach to developing the policy.
“You want to make sure this strategic plan is embedded from the very beginning with solutions and not something you're going to put on a bookshelf,” Nordheimer said.