December  6,  2007

Proposed housing ordinance
will be further modified

After some additional compromises, a third version of proposed 'affordable' housing legislation will put before County Council, according to Penrose Hollins, primary sponsor of the measure.

He was not specific about how many changes will be made or what they will involve at either a meeting of Council's land use committee or several hours later at a public hearing before the Planning Board. Usually substitutes are used to modify specific provisions without altering the basic thrust of proposed legislation.

Discussion and testimony at the hearing on Dec. 4 indicated that the major point of disagreement among supporters of the proposal involves how long purchasers of moderate-priced residences and rental units will be restricted as to how much re-sale prices will be allowed to escalate. The current version sets 15 years for residences and 25 years for rental units.

The proposed ordinance would add new provisions to the Unified Development Code establishing an incentive-based voluntary program looking to increase availability of new housing in the $170,000 to $268,000 price range. That is within the reach of potential buyers with household incomes near or at the county median of $71,600 a year. The median selling price of new houses currently is around $400,000.

Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, who said he was speaking for both his department and on behalf of the Coons administration, testified that the measure "is part of an overall housing strategy that comes directly out of the comprehensive [development] plan that was approved earlier this year."

The 10-year-old development code, he said, "is not producing normal-price houses for normal-type people in the county."

Kevin Kelly, president of Leon Weiner Associates, called the code "a huge impediment in the development of 'affordable' housing." His firm specializes in developing moderate- and low-priced communities. A recent project was redevelopment of the former Eastlake public housing project in northeast Wilmington.

Planning Board member Joseph Maloney took issue with negative connotations applied to the development code, which was enacted in December, 1997. "Where do people come up with the idea the [code] is not working. That is the most ridiculous thing I've heard," he said.

He said density bonuses -- permitting additional units to be constructed on a given amount of land -- and tax incentives have worked well in producing age-restricted housing for persons 55 years of age and older. Additional density and various fee concessions are the main incentives in Hollins's ordinance.

Board member Mark Weinberg said he was uncomfortable with provisions in the measure which would relax some environmental standards. He also questioned the logic behind requiring builders of 'affordable' housing to contribute to an as-yet-to-be-defined housing trust fund while not requiring contributions from builders of market-priced housing. Baker said the contributions were in return for "taking advantage of the bonuses" offered by the legislation.

Hollins said legislation will be proposed in January or February to establish the trust fund. He said it will be financed from several public and private sources. While that will include federal tax-generated funds, it will not require spending "any New Castle County tax dollars," he said.

Michael Skipper, a vice president of W.S.F.S. Bank, testified that the proposed 'affordable' housing ordinance "is consistent with steps counties and cities across the country are taking."

Both Vincent D'Anna, of the New Castle County Board of Realtors, a trade organization of real estate firms, and Steve Lefebvre, of the Delaware Homebuilders Association, endorsed the measure.

As in previous discussions about the proposed ordinance, questions were raised at the public hearing about its concentration on new housing while much the existing housing in the re-sale market is priced in the 'affordable' range. Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan, a supporter of the measure, said "there is no existing housing stock in southern New Castle County," which is where future growth will occur. "It would be beneficial to put 'affordable' housing across the county, including in the more affluent areas," she said.

The Planning Board held hearings on three proposed rezonings -- all of which are controversial to some extent. It was 10 p.m. before it got around to considering the 'affordable' housing proposal. Only about 25 attenders remained in the audience and all who testified were affiliated with a company or organization directly involved in the issue. Testimony and discussion continued until near midnight.

Only Fritz Griesinger, a civic activist who spoke on behalf of the Civic League for New Castle County, testified against the proposal. He called it "a noble vision," but said New Castle County housing costs are among the lowest in the middle-Atlantic region while hourly wages are among the highest in the United States. He questioned why mobile homes and manufactured housing are not being promoted to increase the quantity of moderately-priced housing.

After the Planning Board makes a recommenation, probably later in December, the ordinance will go to Council for a vote, probably in January.

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