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December 14, 2005


"New 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 contention  that 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 house.

• 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 enable folks 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 approved.

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  'affordable housing'."

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 February.

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 Venezky.

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 zoning.

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 determination.

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 said.

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 upkeep.

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 ago.

In other county government matters:

• 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 necessities.

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