Castle County may be a nice place to work, but I
wouldn't be able to afford to live there." It may
not have quite come to that, but expanding the range
of available housing types so a full range of
workers can live within a comfortable commute to their
workplaces heads the list of goals of the Coons
administration's housing strategy.
While unveiling that strategy
to a County Council committee on Dec. 13, Anne Farley,
general manager of the Department of Community Services,
called upon Council to "take an active role in creating a
market environment that promotes high-quality, affordable
housing and ensures [that] housing of all types is better
built and maintained."
In a related matter,
assistant county attorney Cleon Cauley reported that 10 of
the 25 residential properties identified as initial
targets by County Executive Christopher Coons's
Problem Properties Taskforce have had their code violations
corrected or are expected to qualify for removal from the
list by having them corrected within the next 30 days.
And Barbara Benson, chair of
the Historic Review Board, announced that the panel is
working on clarifying the way it seeks to protect properties
deemed to have significant historic value.
Farley agreed with the
an unintended consequence of the Unified Development Code
enacted at the end of 1997 has been to encourage upscale
development to the exclusion of building houses for folks of
relatively modest economic means. Between 2000 and 2004, she
said, the median price of houses in the county
increased 43% to $199,100 while median household income went
up only 3% to $71,100.
She added that the gap is
growing. She said median-priced housing had increased to
$210,000 by mid-2005. A family of four with a combined
annual income of $63,600, which is considered
moderate, cannot, under accepted industry standards, afford
a house costing more than $172,100.
To address the situation, she
proposed that Council consider:
• Enacting 'inclusionary
zoning' which would either require that a specified portion of all new residential developments be
affordable "to targeted income groups" or provide
developers with an option to voluntarily commit to include
that kind of housing in exchange for
allowing greater building density and other incentives.
• Amending the code to permit
the addition of separate living space -- commonly
referred to as 'granny flats' although such areas can be occupied
by persons of any age -- within the footprint of an existing
• Designating a limited
number of geographic areas where there is a large portion of
rental housing as 'home-ownership zones' where a variety of
financial assistance would be available to encourage and
to buy the units they rent.
• Providing subsidies to
encourage development of new and 'infill' housing in
'affordable' price ranges.
• Establishing a housing
trust fund to parley grants, loans and other public and
private financing to provide the county with the wherewithal "to make greater strides [toward] addressing
housing needs [and] to reach lower-income households not
readily served by existing resources and other initiatives."
Farley did not set a
timetable for accomplishing those things, but Councilman
John Cartier, who, as Delaforum has previously reported,
advocates a strong push for 'affordable housing' during
2006, predicted that much of it can be done within a year.
"We have a lot of will around the table. ... We can
certainly accomplish something," he said.
"We're going to have to do
some drastic stuff" to deal with the problem, Council
president Paul Clark said. He added that county government
now provides disincentives to develop lower-priced housing
through such things as impact fees and the length of time it
takes to get a development or redevelopment proposal
Penrose Hollins said
increasing the extent of home ownership will go a long way
toward stabilizing communities and Robert Weiner added that
"it is good for economic development to have
Farley cautioned against a
belief that moves to encourage housing affordability is
something new for county government. She pointed out that
there are such things as a revolving loan program
which provides $1.4 million to an estimated 40 households a
year; $800,000 in down-payment assistance for an estimated
160 households; $12.5 million in federally-sponsored housing
vouchers distributed; and a new program getting started to
assist police officers, firefighters and emergency response
personnel to purchase homes.
The worst case scenario in
Cauley's report was a property at 8 Marlyn Road whose owner,
unidentified in the report, was fined $105,536, including
court costs, in September after being found guilty of
388 counts of property code violations. The
justice-of-the-peace-court verdict has been appealed to
Common Pleas Court and a non-jury trial is scheduled for
Cauley told Council's land
use committee that there are probably about 200 properties
that can be classed as problems.
Forcing code compliance, he
said, can be a long and complex procedure because some
property owners cannot be located and others are
non-responsive. Based on experience so far, he said, the
cost of bringing properties up to standard can easily run
upward of $100,000. Some properties are beyond
rehabilitation, he said.
"I know it can be expensive,
but I don't care. This is absolutely critical. [Such] houses
are a drag on the entire community," said Councilwoman Karen
Benson told the committee
that the Historic Review Board agrees with Weiner that it
needs an approved set of design standards to foster a
pro-active effort to identify properties which merit
preservation. Given the amount of building during the
post-World War Two 'baby boom', the national benchmark of a
structure being 50 years old as the starting point for
considering protection is not sacrosanct, she said.
"You have to be incredibly
careful" to distinguish between simply being old and being
historic, she said. "50 is no longer a magic number."
She said the board is working
on revising an old and probably obsolete list of properties
in the county worthy of being considered for historic
Her comments came during
committee consideration of a proposed ordinance to impose an
historic zoning 'overlay' on a 2.3 acre property in Pencader
Hundred. The review board's recommendation to do so came
after expiration of the automatic nine-month wait before
executing a demolition permit. The waiting period is
intended to give the board time to determine a property's
historic value. In this case, Benson said, it did not have
the time nor all the necessary information to make such a
Attorney Richard Abbott, who
represents 395 Properties, the property owner, said the
point is now moot because the old house which inspired the
'overlay' recommendation has been torn down under terms of
the permit. The owner opposed historic zoning.
Councilman William Tansey
said he is concerned about pro-actively imposing historic
zoning because he sees it as a violation of property rights.
"If someone has an old building but doesn't want that
building he should have the right to tear it down," Tansey
Weiner told the committee
that the Coons administration has expressed interest in
reviving the idea of setting up a 'resident curator' program
for historic county-owned residential properties. That was
talked about during the previous administration of Executive
Tom Gordon, but never got beyond the talking stage. The
arrangement, which is used in Maryland and elsewhere,
involves allowing a qualified person to live rent-free in
such a structure in return for restoring it and providing
Weiner said lack of care is
currently endangering an historic house in Talley-Day Park
which has been vacant since the former owner died two years
In other county government
• The land use committee was
told in closed-door executive session that five lawsuits
involving developer Frank Acierno and his Christiana Town
Center project have been settled. Capano has agreed to pay
$17,000 in fines and the settlement "will result in
significant cost savings in additional legal fees,"
according to a press statement issued by Coons's office
after the meeting. The suits already have cost the county
$750,000 to litigate.
• Council members
appeared to be agreed to passing a resolution at its Dec. 20
pleanary session supporting passage by the General Assembly
of a measure authorizing a surcharge on utility bills to
finance assisting low-income households pay their gas and
electricity bills without having to cut back on buying other