Single mother Lisa Hernandez spent years glancing between real estate listings full of fixer-uppers and her children as they played in a neighborhood that was growing less safe.
For four years after her divorce, she waited and rented, refusing to hang pictures on the walls of her town house because she didn't want to feel settled. Her goal was to buy a place of her own where she could let her son and daughter outside without anxiety. But with her tight budget and reluctance to buy a house in disrepair, her search kept coming up short.
If it weren't for Whispering Creek, Hernandez says she might still be in rental limbo, permanently stuck in temporary homes.
Eight town houses standing against a leafy stream valley east of Frederick opened a different path for Hernandez. The Whispering Creek subdivision, where Hernandez still lives, was the first project to participate in the county's moderately priced dwelling unit program, which required developers to build the lower-cost town houses.
Hernandez bought her gabled, sunny town house for $176,366 during an afternoon closing in 2007. The very same day, she shifted her belongings from her mother's house to her new home.
"It was mine," she said, smiling during a recent interview in her living room. "I just wanted to make my mark."
In the days of Whispering Creek, the law forced developers to make sure at least 12.5 percent of each housing project was moderately priced and offered perks like density bonuses for going above the minimum.
Then in 2011, Frederick County commissioners gave them an alternative: Pay a fee of $17,500 for each lower-cost unit they would've had to build, and call it a day.
The new option proved so popular with developers that it has eclipsed the original requirement; county records show that in the past three years, not a single developer has opted to construct one of the lower-cost homes.
County ordinance would've required roughly 480 moderately priced dwellings in eight projects started since 2011, but rather than build the homes, the developers have agreed to fork over a combined total of $8.4 million in fees. So far, they have paid more than $1 million of this amount into a fund for county housing initiatives.
The fund has furnished money for the year-round homeless shelter in downtown Frederick and for the land trust that recently emerged from a collaboration between the county and Habitat for Humanity.
Those are worthy causes, but they don't raise new walls and roofs for low- to middle-income families, says William Hall, who serves on the Frederick County Planning Commission.
From his seat on the commission, Hall has chafed under what he sees as a reluctance to build affordable homes and rental units, even warning during one meeting that "we're getting to be an elitist county." Fellow commission member Dwaine Robbins shares Hall's concerns about the scarcity of moderately priced dwellings, apartments and condos in project plans. Both are wary of the motivations that underlie these trends.
"When people talk about affordable housing, they think about some bad person," Robbins said. "But those people are the people who make this community work."
Along with jobs, shelter was the biggest need pinpointed in a 2011 countywide assessment by The Community Foundation of Frederick County.
The federal government considers families who spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing as cost-burdened. Using this standard, housing costs are too high for 45 percent of renters in Frederick County, according to estimates from the American Community Survey for 2008 through 2012. About 30 percent of homeowners are cost-burdened by this measure, according to the survey.
Hundreds of the county's public employees such as teachers and police officers opt to commute to work. The school system reports that about 800 teachers live outside the county, and the Frederick County Sheriff's Office says 71 deputies drive their cruisers into other jurisdictions at the end of their shifts.
Many of these workers can't afford to live in the community they serve, the planning commissioners say.
"Everybody can't live in a mansion," Hall said.
Creating the fee
Robbins believes that the county should scrap the fee option so that developers are forced to construct moderately priced dwelling units. Other affordable housing advocates say the fee is fine in theory but is currently much too low, as shown by its obvious attractiveness to developers.
Ryan Trout, chairman of the Frederick Affordable Housing Council, says the fee shouldn't be crafted based on the interests of the building industry but on those of middle-income families.
"Let's conduct a thorough investigation into what would make a unit affordable in Frederick County," he said.
The county's moderately priced dwelling unit ordinance has been around since 2002, and the eight town houses in Whispering Creek were unveiled with much fanfare several years later. Hernandez recalls the dramatic lottery at Winchester Hall, where officials drew the names of the program's first homebuyers in front of residents and media. She had to work that day, but she still remembers her mother calling to share the news that Hernandez was among the lucky few.
Seven years later, she and others in the Whispering Creek town houses are still the only buyers through the county's MPDU program.
The housing market collapse helped stall the program since development in general was sluggish in the years after 2007.
Sitting county officials opened up the fee option while dealing with shock waves from the recession and a housing market choked with foreclosures. Out of concern that building more low-cost units would only add to the glut, commissioners decided to provide the fee as an alternative to construction. A group of stakeholders from the affordable housing and development communities met with county staff and sized the fee at $17,500 for each moderately priced home the developers would've otherwise had to build.
These types of fees often mirror the gap between the building costs and sale price for a moderately priced home, said Barbara Bezdek, a law professor with expertise in affordable housing. In Howard County, the fee varies and is calculated based on the difference between a prevailing market price for a house and the sale price for a similar moderately priced dwelling. In Montgomery County, the fee option is available only to developers of certain high-rise condominiums.
Bezdek, a faculty member with the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said the best fee-in-lieu programs are designed so the fee can be updated in response to fluctuating economic conditions.
The county's fee has remained constant since 2011.
'Getting folks into a house'
Thomas Hyde, president of the Frederick County Building Industry Association, said the county in 2011 had plenty of lower-cost housing for sale. The potential time and cost of running the MPDU program was also causing angst to county leaders, he said. Rather than build low-cost homes that would sit languishing on the market, the county found it more efficient to collect developer funds for a land trust or other housing programs, he said.
"It's about getting folks into a house, not into a house in a new subdivision," Hyde said. "If the goal is to get folks into affordable housing, then you should utilize the best method to get folks into affordable housing."
So far, the county has spent or committed about $724,500 of the roughly $1.04 million in MPDU fees it has collected, according to Jenny Short, the county's director of housing and community development. A large portion of that amount, about $404,500, supports sheltering programs, and the rest feeds into an innovative affordable housing land trust administered by Habitat for Humanity. The land trust has bought and refurbished three houses in its first year of operation but has not yet made any sales. Several of the sheltering programs receiving fee dollars previously received county support through grant-in-aid funding, which sitting commissioners have eliminated.
Bezdek said the MPDU fee is usually intended to fund projects to build affordable housing. But if these homes aren't needed, it might be appropriate to use the money in other ways, she said.
Commissioners President Blaine Young says the fee has breathed life into the stale MPDU program by raising money to help those most in need of shelter.
"I think where before it was a failed government program, now it's a program that helps people that need a hand up, that may end up in a shelter, that go into a weekly shelter, that end up having a home through Habitat (for Humanity)," he said.
Bezdek said healthy moderately priced dwelling unit programs should offer a variety of options to a developer and shouldn't rely on a fee alone.
"You want to have a list of devices in order to gain a credible contribution from every developer, so that could be cash, land, off-site units, redevelopment, limited public subsides," she said.
Short acknowledges that the fee option has edged out the construction of moderately priced homes, but she said it's too soon to issue a verdict on the MPDU program as a whole. So far, developers have chosen the fee option because they've had difficulty selling the lower-cost homes, Hyde said. But Short said a couple of projects in the pipeline might incorporate moderately priced dwellings for the first time since the fee's creation.
Future of the fee
County leaders should take stock of the fee before it sunsets in September 2016 and decide whether it should continue to be an option and if so, whether it should be raised, Short said.
"I think we need to go through the ordinance with a fine-tooth comb and make sure it's doing the best it can do," she said.
Young also said he would support continuing the fee and would be open to adjusting it.
Jan Gardner, a Democrat who is opposing Young in the race for county executive, said the fee might be appropriate for certain types of developments. However, Gardner said perhaps county leaders should create limits so the fee can replace only a portion of the required moderately priced homes.
"I think having a way to opt out entirely is problematic," she said, stressing the importance of affordable housing in the county.
Hyde said a substantial number of affordable single-family houses are available on the Frederick County housing market, especially compared to areas like Montgomery or Howard counties. One factor in high housing costs is the fees and improvements the county requires of developers; these mandated contributions increase the price of a new home by about $50,000 to $60,000, he said.
The need for inexpensive rental housing is more severe in Frederick County, Hyde said.
However, very few multifamily units are appearing in new project designs, especially since the county's current leaders hesitate to include apartments and condo units in many development plans, Hyde said. Commissioners stripped multifamily units from the controversial Monrovia Town Center and decided not to follow a county staff suggestion to require the dwelling type in the Casey Planned Unit Development in New Market.
The number of multifamily homes constructed in Frederick County has spiked in the past two years, but almost all of them have been built in the city of Frederick. Outside the city, county officials are curtailing the spread of multifamily homes, partially in response to the wishes of residents who don't want to see dense housing come to their area.
Young said condos, apartments or moderately priced homes belong in the city, near the government services residents might need.
"Why would you put an MPDU in Adamstown when that person may need transit or may need one of the other many programs that the county offers? ... To me, that doesn't make any sense at all," he said.
Gardner said she doesn't believe multifamily homes should be limited to municipal boundaries but does understand the concerns of rural residents facing the arrival of dense development in their area.
Taken in a certain light, Frederick County's high housing costs might be a good thing, Young said. He noted that a real estate blog recently ranked Frederick County the ninth-best county in the nation because, among other things, its high housing costs show people will pay to live in the area. Officials need to strike a balance when it comes to affordability, he said.
Robbins and Hall have pushed back against the assumption that condos and apartments are synonymous with escalating crime rates and lower quality of life. At planning commission hearings, Robbins has often pointed out to residents that he once lived in an apartment and now rents a town house.
"I say, 'The people you're talking about, I'm one of those people. You think I'm bad?'" Robbins said.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.
— Bethany Rodgers