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The sad housing v schools debate.

Housing Needs versus County Services –

Misinformation in the Sad Debate-

Howard County is about to update its development regulations and there is contention between those who wish to increase residential building as vastly and quickly as possible versus those who want to balance growth with concerns for crowded schools, environmental protection, and flooding.

A huge issue in these debates is how much impact development has on public school enrollment. Development advocates have claimed for many years, that resold homes create more student enrollment than newly constructed homes due to older families selling to younger families with school-aged children.

The Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is required to report on new student enrollment figures each year. This data has been widely misused to vastly understate the number of students from new construction. For years, advocates have requested more detailed tallies, and we finally got them.

HCPSS Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano recently provided actual data of how many students come from specific development projects, to the Howard County Board of Education HCBOE. Martirano stated that although “…all of the impacts of new development are accounted for in our projection methodology…there is a misperception that residential development provides a single-year impact on school enrollment.” The data comparisons noted by Martirano are stunning. They show up to ten times the amount of current enrollment of students from new housing projects, versus originally noted impact.

HCBOE Member Vicky Cutroneo expressed her dismay regarding this discovery, stating, “The inaccurate yield of students from new construction has been used to represent impact as a whole, in everything from fiscal impact studies to recent general plan presentations. The results are the ever increasing need for relocatable classrooms, a severe current shortage of brick and mortar seats and hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance.”

For years, the understated student yield from new homes has swayed elected officials to ease building regulations and fees. As recently as 2019, the false data was used to specifically lower the long-overdue increase in builder fees.

The People’s Voice has expressed concern, for years, that new student data has only noted the first year of occupancy permits when defining a new student as sourced from construction. In no way do those figures show a tally of students from development. Not unless you define “new” as limited to a 10 month old or younger home, and pretend students only attend school for one year.

These concerns have been validated and quantified now by the HCPSS Superintendent and Office of Planning. At long last, the correct data shows that Howard County has indeed been putting developer profits over adequate facilities. The true cost of tens of millions in forgone mitigation fees are repeatedly coming to bear in nearly every County fiscal transaction.

Many believe that the crowding effects of high density development are worth it to attempt to create more affordable housing prices. This notion does not take into consideration the actual much higher costs to the County of providing deficit infrastructure spending, like the one example outlined above; however, the goal is actually thwarted even more for another reason. Only small amounts of affordable units are provided by market rate projects. Often the project even pays to get out of providing the small numbers required. Thus, high density goals do not reach more affordable prices, not in middle incomes, and definitely not for low incomes.

The County could actually provide more units that are affordable and at a far less cost than what is spent now (considering infrastructure cost deficits), by using land trusts and other policy tools.

It would be far cheaper for the County to utilize land trusts that earn their name by only being used for government projects. These types of units would even be permanent versus the small, temporary current provisions. Directly supplied affordable homes could reduce reliance on developers to provide our tiny, temporary amounts. We need more tools to address these issues than Howard County has been exploring.

The notion that high market rate housing supply will make all homes more affordable can be fairly called a trickle down theory. It belies adequate knowledge of supply and demand in the housing market.

Regardless of your position on affordable housing issues, the time for making planning decisions based on false data must come to an end. Pay attention to elections next year and ask your representative if they are going to rely only on real data when making land use decisions. Ask if they think high density building is the answer to fiscal and affordability needs.


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