November  7,  2007

Land Use rolls out drastically
revised housing ordinance

Although clearly unsatisfied, County Councilman Penrose Hollins reluctantly accepted a greatly revised version of a proposed 'affordable' housing ordinance and said he will formally introduce it at Council's next plenary session and push hard for its passage.

"Close to 400 jurisdictions all over the country have inclusionary housing [laws]," he said, and it is not likely that any offer more generous incentives to developers than New Castle County's will if the measure the Department of Land Use produced is enacted.

"If they don't make this work, it's because they don't have the desire to make it work."

Department general manager Charles Baker unveiled the revised version of a proposed ordinance establishing a 'housing opportunities' program at a meeting of Council's land use committee. Text highlighting in the 16-page document indicated that considerably more provisions had been changed from the original draft than were left standing.

Baker said the revisions came from comments and suggestions received during "conversations with different groups" with interests in residential development.

Hollins, the longest-serving member of Council and an outspoken advocate for equal opportunities for a diverse county population, said that he "compromised significantly" in an effort to win approval for "one part of a plan that calls for diversifying housing stock."

Several of Hollins's colleagues spoke in general terms about the issue after Baker's presentation at the meeting on Nov. 6, but only John Cartier specifically voiced support for the proposed ordinance. He referred to it as "a major step in encouraging housing for the working families in our community."

"People who grew up here, live here and work here are being left out," Cartier said. "People are coming from elsewhere to escape high real-estate taxes and take advantage of our extremely low taxes and developers are building to that market."

Principal change from the first version of the ordinance to the new one was to make participation in the 'housing opportunities' program voluntary. In the original version, it would be initially voluntary, but become mandatory for proposed developments of 10 or more housing units if a total of at least 300 'affordable' housing units were not in the development-approval process by the end of 2008 and each of four subsequent years. The revision said only that the department is to recommend changes in the law, possibly including additional incentives, a year after the law becomes effective.

Hollins said, however, "if voluntary [participation] doesn't work, I'll be working as hard as I can to make it mandatory."

Goal of the program is to have at least a fifth of new housing units priced between $170,000 and $268,000. According to the department, the average price of new residential construction in the county is $400,000 while median income for a family of four is $71,600.  That means a 'typical' family can afford to buy a home priced at about $220,000. Median means that half of households earn less than the 'typical' one.

Hollins shared with his colleagues a graph which showed 20% of the general workforce in the county earns between 80% and 120% of median income and another 32% earns between 50% and 80%. The former category includes people in business and financial operations, computer and mathematical occupations, and those in architectural and engineering positions. The latter includes sales and related jobs, construction workers and educators.

Baker in his presentation to the committee -- which, like all standing committees, includes all members of Council -- emphasized that the proposed ordinance "does not require or encourage public subsidy for those [who] cannot obtain market financing [or] low-income rental housing in single-family neighborhoods."

Hollins expressed the same thing this way: "We're talking about 'these' people, not 'those' people."

Baker said the incentives -- which, essentially, are partial exemptions from provisions of the Universal Development Code -- are aimed at encouraging building "homes like they (developers) used to build in New Castle County that the code does not encourage them to build now."

The incentives, he added, also are in line with what is deemed necessary to implement the shift in development patterns envisioned in the five-year comprehensive plan developed in collaboration with a cross-section of county residents active in public affairs and approved by Council earlier this year.

Among the incentives are:

Allowing a developer to build half again as many residential units if a fifth of them are to be priced in the 'affordable' range and twice as many units if a fifth of them are to be priced below $173,000.

Reducing the required amount of open space in a major development from 50% to 35% of the total area.

Remaining open-space requirements could be partly satisfied by dedicating an equal area for schools, libraries or other public amenities.

Reducing lot and building-with and -height standards by 25%.

Eliminating or reducing various fees for 'workforce' (a term synonymous with 'affordable') units.

More liberal requirements for landscaping, buffering and stormwater management.

Another key change in the new version of the proposed ordinance is reducing from 20 to 15 years the length of time after initial sale that future selling prices must be within an adjusted 'affordable' range. Rental units would have to remain 'affordable' for 25 years.

'Affordable' housing would have to be scattered throughout a development, not be easily recognizable as different from and built concurrently with 'market-priced' units, and use material of similar quality.

The ratio of 'workforce' units could be met, entirely or in part, by building or rehabilitating housing units at a location other than the site of the development.

Prospective purchasers would have to be certified as income-qualified by the Department of Community Services.

Under the new version, developers would still be required to contribute to a housing trust fund, but the amount would be determined by the value of 'market-priced' units and not set at a flat $1,000 per unit. Baker estimated that a $960 payment would be required for a unit which would sell for $400,000.

The ordinance would become effective immediately upon enactment and apply to any development plans which had not yet obtained preliminary approval. Developers could choose to modify approved plans to bring them under the provisions of the ordinance with subsequent approval determined on an expedited basis as a minor plan.

Hollins said he will introduce the revised version of the ordinance on Nov. 13. Under normal Council procedure it will be referred to the land use department and the Planning Board for at least one public hearing and a subsequent recommendation, most likely in December. It would then come back to Council for a vote, possibly at one of its two January meetings. The postponed public informational meeting will be held on Nov. 8, beginning at 7 p.m., in the Gilliam Building at the county government site in Corporate Commons.

Also to be introduced on Nov. 13 and subject to be immediately approved is a resolution calling on the department to identify between 10 and 20 parcels "suitable for rezoning to a [suburban transition] zoning classification for a developer willing to participate" in either the hosing opportunities program or a soon-to-be-established program for transfer of development rights.

Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: New version of housing ordinance being prepared

Read previous Delaforum article: 'Affordable housing' ordinance unveiled

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