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October 19, 2005

 

John Cartier urged his County Council colleagues to get serious about alleviating what he described as an acute shortage of 'affordable' housing. They could take an early step in that direction as soon as their next session.

Reporting on a national conference on the topic which he recently attended, Cartier told Council's land use committee that median family income in the county is $52,400 a year, which would qualify for a $157,000 mortgage, while the median price of a house is $199,000. Median refers to the statistical midpoint in a sample, with an equal number of, in this case, houses commanding higher and lower prices.

Developers, he said, are currently building houses which far exceed the ability of a majority of county residents to afford them. "We're not talking about poverty; we're talking about working people," he said.

Using the analogy of a ladder, he added, "We've cut off the bottom two rungs."

In a separate but tangently related matter, Council president Paul Clark told the committee meeting on Oct. 18 that he intends to move at Council's Oct. 25 session for passage of a controversial pending ordinance to eliminate the requirement for a so-called '3.319' hearing when development plans seek greater building density in return for setting aside relatively large amounts of open space. The number designation refers to the paragraph in the Unified Development Code which sets forth the requirement.

He drew immediate direct fire from council members David Tackett, Patty Powell and William Bell who objected to the fact that the measure also would do away with Council's ability to approve or reject that kind of plan. They would be treated like any other subdivision plan where Council action is limited to ratifying Department of Land Use approval or returning it to the department for further determination of whether and how it meets the technical requirements of the Unified Development Code.

Powell and Bell represent constituencies in the area of the county south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal where most future residential growth is expected to occur.

Saying that he approves the concept of encouraging so-called 'cluster development' and acknowledging that the ordinance would do that, Tackett said, "A better job is not going to entail me giving up my vote."

Eliminating the hearings and denying their elected representatives the right to vote removes the public from their right to be involved in the approval process, Powell said.

The pending ordinance does provide for the Planning Board to hold a public hearing on all major development plans at the early exploratory phase of the approval process. Tackett pointed out, however, that plans frequently are significantly altered as they go through the process. "What we're told at the beginning is not what we get at the end," he said.

"Fear of [Council's] vote is what turns their (developers') way into cookie-cutter development," Clark said. "The housing [development] community said, 'I'm not going to get involved in that' [because of] the uncertainty."

'Cluster development' commonly translates as allowing more townhouses to be built. Robert Weiner further defined the basis for opposition. "This is about keeping 'those kind of people' out," he said.

Weiner, who originally proposed doing away with '3.319' hearings, is co-sponsoring the ordinance. He endorsed Clark's approach as "greatly improved over the original version I sponsored."

William Tansey said '3.319' hearings seldom get into the issues they were intended to address; namely, environmental impact from a proposed project and compatibility with the 'neighborhood character' of the surrounding area. "They talk about everything else but that," he said.

Requiring special hearings for more-dense development "helped to give a stigma to townhouse development," Penrose Hollins said.

The '3.319' discussion provided an unplanned segueway into talking about 'affordable' housing.

"The reason we have no 'affordable' housing in New Castle County is the Unified Development Code," Weiner said. "If we don't look at it soon, there will be no place to build 'affordable' housing."

That is what Cartier proposed doing. He called for immediately "opening a dialogue with the public and [the] development community" toward that end. He said such discussion should be thorough and could take as long as a year.

"We need to produce [housing] options in the county," he said.

"We're not providing any 'affordable' housing and we on Council are not doing anything about it," Powell said.

Cartier proposed adopting 'inclusionary zoning' aimed at generating "vibrant, mixed-income communities." He defined that as requiring major developments "to provide a percentage of dwelling units for sale at the median-income level or at some percentage of median income." He said other counties and jurisdictions in the nation have such codes.

"We have a great movement going on and it's gaining strength," he said.

Noting that his  involvement with the future of the Brookview apartment complex in Claymont and the newly formed Brookview tenants council awakened him to the "'affordable' housing crisis," Cartier said that in the redeveloped Brookview "we're going to have an 'affordable' set-aside -- 10% on site and 10% off site." He did not elaborate on that point.,

Weiner proposed referring to 'affordable' housing as 'workforce' housing, which he said would be a more accurate and less divisive description. "Call it 'workforce' housing and the stigma goes away," he said.

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