by Kim Byrnes
A Primer on Affordable Housing and What it Means for Carroll County: When people can’t find an affordable place to live, the whole community pays.
For years we’ve been seeing headline after headline about affordable housing, housing shortages and even a housing crisis in the U.S. For those who are secure in their housing, or have the means (finances, employment, credit) to purchase a home, it may seem like a distant issue. But as is the case with so many economic elements, affordable housing impacts the entire community. There is a ripple effect that touches even the wealthy when an entire segment of the population is unable to secure stable housing.
Every resident has a stake in the game. Of course it is about human dignity, social equity and health, but it’s also a matter of economics and the ability of a community to thrive and grow. According to local experts, Carroll County is not currently experiencing a housing “crisis,” but they say supply does not meet demand and they are on a path to address the issue before those ripple effects become waves.
What is “affordable housing”?
“A lot of what we focus on is access to housing because what is affordable to one person may not be affordable to someone else,” explains Celene Steckel, director of Carroll County’s Department of Citizen Services. “There are so many pieces to the housing puzzle — are you talking about rental or ownership? And people are at varying positions in their lives, which also comes into play.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines affordable housing as housing that can be secured at no more than 30 percent of the household’s income. This ensures that households will have enough money for other nondiscretionary expenses like food, transportation, and healthcare; households that spend more than 30 percent of income on housing costs are considered to be housing cost burdened.
“Affordable housing” is often used as a general term to refer to housing for low-income earners and often includes government-subsidized programs such as housing vouchers or housing designated for low-income residents.
Who is directly impacted by a lack of affordable housing?
Steckel, who directs the operations of the Bureau of Aging & Disability, Community & Senior Centers, Housing and Community Development and the Local Management Board, says that there are diverse populations who fit into the “housing cost burdened” framework.
“We could be talking about senior housing, or student and young professional housing, and of course housing for the lowest income earning individuals. There are many factors that play a role in housing,” Steckel says.
When talking about housing and barriers to housing, it’s important to address a community’s homeless population. Steckel says that Carroll County served 602 individuals through its homeless services in fiscal year 2022 — 92 percent of them fell into the “extremely low” income category with less than $24,000 in annual income, and 54 percent had no income overall. According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the federal poverty threshold in Maryland is $30,000 annual income for a family of four.
“That’s when they come to us,” Steckel says. “We work with individuals to help them apply for benefits they may qualify for. We always try to get them income they may qualify for and to help with employment opportunities.”
The goal for Steckel’s teams is to try to make a homeless period as brief as possible and to get folks into or back into stable housing. She says when individuals enter a shelter, they engage with staff who assess how long someone has been homeless and how they became homeless, and they try to understand the client’s specific housing barriers. Housing stability coordinators also engage with the court system to try to help people avoid eviction.
“We have three housing stability coordinators to engage with people of any income to work with landlords to try to prevent eviction,” Steckel says. “It’s so much easier to stabilize folks if they are still housed. Once they are evicted, it becomes much more difficult to get them into housing.”
Steckel adds that there is HUD funding for rapid rehousing — rental units where the subsidy is paid for a period of time, while case managers and housing stability coordinators help individuals become more self-sufficient so they can go into more permanent housing.
“Our goal is always to move people on to their own self sufficiently paid unit or home,” Steckel said. “As you know, just getting someone into housing does not lead to successful housing. We have to have case support and services that follow them to ensure long term success.”
Who is indirectly impacted by a lack of affordable housing?
According to Dr. Kevin McIntyre, professor of economics at McDaniel College, everyone in the community is affected by the ripple effects of affordable housing woes.
McIntyre says that for most Americans, unless they are among the wealthiest households in the country, one’s house is their most valuable asset. Homeowners want to see house prices robustly increase because that boosts their net worth, which in turn affects their ability to spend and buy things and have a nice lifestyle. On the other hand, he notes, it is the case that in Carroll County and most places across the country, it is increasingly difficult for lower-income and even first-time, close-to-middle-income households to afford a house.
“And ultimately that poses some risks to communities, because if someone just starting out — even someone with good income prospects — is spending a good share of their income on a mortgage, or more likely these days on rent, that is less income that they have to spend elsewhere in the community,” McIntyre says. “So if Carroll County is looking to be a vibrant growing suburb, with good, favorable demographic trends, affordable housing and having younger demographics being able to locate here is important.”
A former senior economist at Moody’s Analytics, McIntyre adds that it is important for people to be able to live close to where they work.
“If people can’t afford to live close to where they work, that will have a negative impact on the local labor market and cost of services that those folks provide.”
He explains that if employers seeking traditionally lower-income occupation workers — restaurant and food service, secretarial, housekeeping, landscaping — have a difficult time finding help, it could result in wage inflation, which makes it even more expensive to live here. “I’m not going to drive to Westminster from Towson to be a barista,” McIntyre points out.
“Another aspect of it is, again, when people live where they work, they also spend where they live. So fewer people being able to live here means less being spent here, and that retards opportunities for economic growth, which hurts the tax base which makes it more expensive to provide services.”
Demographics matter, McIntyre says, and having a diverse demographic population ultimately makes life better for all residents.
“Let’s connect some dots … it is important for most places to have some population growth and have a good population age distribution,” McIntyre says. “Another aspect to this is how expensive it is to live in a community. Generally when it is expensive to live somewhere, what that translates to is the county’s population will get older and older and older, and then there are going to be issues associated with that as well.”
How does Carroll address affordable housing?
Steckel says that her team is working with Carroll County’s planning department to create a path for more affordable housing in the county. In January, the county began the work of securing a consultant who will study all aspects of housing in Carroll County, including the current stock, the quantity and quality of housing available at all levels of income, available units, value of units, age of units, owner or renter occupied, vacancy rates for rentals, rates on foreclosure and eviction, etc.
Steckel said that the request for proposal (RFP) distributed earlier this year asks the consultant to complete the comprehensive study within a year, and that the goal is for the consultant to also provide recommendations to address housing issues, based on conversations with community members, developers and other stakeholders. The RFP project description reads: “The selected firm will need to analyze current infrastructure, land use and zoning patterns across the County and recommend housing options that meet the state LU Article provisions 3-114 as well as meet the future needs of the county for economic development.”
While Steckel says she wouldn’t necessarily say that housing is a “crisis” right now, she does believe that there is limited stock in Carroll County and there are not enough units to address the need.
“When you look at the housing barriers we have in Carroll County, many things contribute to that, including zoning and permitting laws,” Steckel says. “There is also a lack of water and sewer infrastructure, and the municipalities manage the water and sewer infrastructure, so in order to increase stock and access, we need to work with the municipalities to develop collaboration for those builds.”
Steckel adds that developers need incentives to participate in this initiative and price homes accordingly.
There is often community resistance to developing high-density housing options, Steckel notes. In an article titled “Living With a Crisis of Affordable Housing,” Johns Hopkins economist Luis Quintero points to a number of reasons the country is facing an affordable housing shortage — including regulations on new construction, a declining number of builders, high demand and zoning regulations, just to name a few. He says that in the U.S., neighborhoods and neighborhood associations go through a political process to decide what can be built in their neighborhoods.
“In the U.S., where decisions are made in a decentralized way, NIMBYism — not in my back yard — is widespread,” Quintero says in the article. “Homeowners or whole neighborhoods tend to look out for their own interests and protect their investment.”
McIntyre, the McDaniel economics professor, says that there are things that Carroll County can do to help with the housing issue. The Westminster resident said that infrastructure, or lack thereof, has been an issue from time to time when development projects are discussed.
“Generally, when we talk about housing affordability, it is invariably on the supply side of the market and to that end, one of the things that communities in Carroll County can do — in municipalities like Westminster and Eldersburg, is really make sure that the infrastructure is there for builders, especially for folks interested in multi-family construction. They need to have the infrastructure to increase supply,” McIntyre says.
So while experts do not say Carroll County is experiencing a housing crisis at this time, they do acknowledge that when it comes to affordable housing, demand exceeds supply and because of that, they are in the process of conducting a year-long study to address the issue. Housing is a broad and complex issue, and there is no “one size fits all” solution that will resolve affordable housing in any community.
While affordable housing is an issue that can appear on the surface to only impact certain segments of society — those who earn lower wages or are unemployed — the economics of housing guarantee that it will impact every citizen in a community. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, housing instability can negatively affect an individual’s physical and mental health and make it harder to access health care.
“It does impact the entire community,” Steckel says. “Folks want to see their community thrive and be well, and having people successfully housed means people are staying healthy — they are seeking physical and mental health care, taking the steps needed to get the treatment they need to stay well. If we have housing that is accessible to folks, we have a healthier community.”
Churches Partnered to Address Affordable Housing for Seniors 50 Years Ago
In 1967, recognizing a need for affordable housing for seniors, seven churches in Westminster formulated a plan to provide housing for many who could no longer maintain their own homes. Timber Ridge Apartments, a 100-unit senior housing retirement home, began renting in January of 1973.
During the mid-’80s, with all units occupied and the waiting list growing, the organization began the journey of creating additional housing. After numerous struggles, the mid-rise 80-unit project opened in January of 1993. Historical documents from Westminster Church Homes — the nonprofit organization created to manage the properties — reflect the organization’s commitment to affordable housing for seniors as it worked with HUD to provide necessary rental subsidies for the residents and operations of the buildings.
“I remember well when my church was approached to make a substantial contribution toward the effort, which we did, along with several other churches, who continue to support the idea,” Westminster resident Janet Kelly says. “My own grandmother was able to take advantage of this opportunity, and I can’t tell you how much our family appreciated it for her sake in the early ’80s.”
Kelly serves on the board of directors for Westminster Church Homes. The organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary in October.
“I’m pretty sure we were the first in Carroll County to open housing for low-income seniors at Timber Ridge, and are still proudly serving our elders.”