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October  10,  2007

'Affordable housing'
ordinance unveiled

Developers would be encouraged and at some time in the future possibly required to set aside at least a fifth of new housing units for buyers with moderate or low incomes under a proposed county ordinance.

A draft of the measure, prepared by the Department of Land Use for introduction soon by Councilman Penrose Hollins, was made public amid a spate of activity directed at implementing some of the key provisions of the county's recently adopted comprehensive development plan.

That followed Council approval, by unanimous vote, of a resolution sponsored by Hollins to "approve the establishment of the New Castle County Housing Trust Fund for the purpose of dedicating public funds and revenues from other sources to address the housing needs of very-low-income households earning lass than 50% of median income, low-income households earning 50% to 80% of median income and moderate-income households earning 80% to 120% of median income."

Preamble of the proposed 'affordable housing' legislation said median annual income in the county in 2006 was $72,100, according to the plan.

'Affordable housing' also is referred to as 'workforce housing' or 'inclusionary housing'.

Also, on Oct. 10 Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan convened a meeting of a committee charged with crafting 'smart growth' legislation and told members it was their task to come up with recommendation to change the landmark Unified Development Code, which is said to have fostered 'suburban sprawl' to the virtual exclusion of other kinds of development.

The proposed 'affordable housing' ordinance sets forth a process which initially would be voluntary but would automatically become mandatory if at least 300 such units are not in the development-approval process by the end of 2008 and each of four subsequent years.

The law would apply to any development in the unincorporated area of the county of 10 or more residential units, whether new or replacements for existing housing. It would prohibit phasing larger projects to come in under that number.

In return for agreeing to set aside at least a fifth of the units for moderate-income buyers with at least half of those priced within a range that low-income households could afford, developers would be allowed double the housing density provided for in the code. They would get a 50% density bonus if fewer than half of the 'affordable' units were made available to low-income households.

A variety of other development incentives -- such as requiring less landscaping or open space and more lenient setback and parking requirements -- would be provided. Projects containing 'affordable housing' would receive "expedited and streamlined consideration" of applications for rezoning, plan approval and required code variances.

A developer could, in effect, buy out of the program by contributing to the housing trust fund a per-dwelling amount determined by a formula based upon the difference in the costs of constructing market-priced and 'affordable' housing, plus 10% to cover administration costs.

Alternatively, the requirement could be waived if the Planning Board determines "that development of the 'affordable' units on-site would not be in the best interest of the county or 'affordable households' or that an alternate means of compliance ... would further 'affordable housing' opportunities in the county."

In addition, all developers would be required to make a "financial contribution" of $1,000 per unit to the housing trust fund.

Money from the trust fund would be used to subsidize construction, acquisition and-or maintenance of "permanently affordable units" and to finance and administer programs related to promoting 'affordable housing'.

Once built, the 'affordable' units would carry deed restrictions intended to keep subsequent resales 'affordable' for up to 30 years.

The proposed ordinance defines 'affordable housing' as costing no more than 30% of gross household income at or below 120% of median income in the county as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development.

Hollins launched the 'affordable housing' effort by advocating passage of the resolution supporting -- but not actually bringing about --  establishment of the trust fund at a finance committee hearing before Council's plenary session on Oct. 9.

Responding to a letter from Beverly Baxter, executive director of the Committee of 100, a development trade organization, questioning county government's ability to administer such a fund, Hollins said that the Department of Community Services and its predecessors have functioned as a housing authority for the past 40 years.

"We are the largest issuer of Section 8 [housing subsidy] vouchers in Delaware [and] one of the first housing authorities in the country to provide a program to go from Secton 8 [rentals] to home ownership," he said.

Anticipating likely controversy over the entire concept of 'affordable housing', he said objectors are "looking at [it] was a way of showing their racial hatred."

After Council president Paul Clark said he had hoped "we could have this discussion without playing to race," Hollins, who is black, replied, "Quite honesty, this is America and it hppens."

Although he ended up with the support of all 12 of his Council colleagues when the resolution came to a vote, some raised objections during the committee meeting.

William Tansey said he was personally involved several years ago with a short-lived county housing authority. "I was there at its inception and I was there at its demise," he said, adding without being specific that politics caused its death.

George Smiley said he supported the resolution, but "we need a big turnaround in New Castle County finances before I can support [financing] the program."

Clark objected to a "piecemeal approach" to 'affordable housing' saying that he would prefer to see a "holistic" package of legislation rather than individual measures. On the other hand, he said, "We all would like to see people in good housing [but] I'm not sure we can get there all at once."

John Cartier said he hoped that members of Council would look upon both the resolution and the soon-to-come ordinance as "an opportunity to do good -- to let some people get a shot at the American dream."

McClellan's committee focused on a recommendation from a consultant hired by the Department of Land Use which came up a draft ordinance. David Culver, of the Department, said that is being tailored to New Castle County and will be presented to the committee as a starting point for coming up with a draft ordinance to replace the section of the Unified Development Code dealing with 'hamlets' and 'villages'.

The concept, he said, is to go back to the past and come up with mixed-use 'walkable' residential communities. He said the planned Renaissance Village in Claymont is an example. The area along and around Bancroft Parkway in Wilmington is another.

The development code, he said, provides rigidly-defined zoning districts while current thinking leans more toward mixing residential, commercial and office uses. "It's time to go back to the way things were developed in the past," he said.

"This is our opportunity to build a better place," he added, citing the Barley Mill Plaza, the Chrysler plant and, possibly, the General Motors plant as possible sites for 'smart growth' redevelopment.

Victor Singer, a member of the committee who also chairs the Planning Board, cautioned against advocating change that might prove to be too sweeping. "Fix what's wrong; don't eliminate what is right," he said.

Mary Ann Cinaglia, of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said. the emphasis should not be entirely on uses and kinds of building. "When you consider buildings you also have to consider the people who are going to live and work there," she said.

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