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Howard County's Older Adults Deserve Better than Gimmicky Zoning Solutions

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Howard County's Older Adults Deserve Better than Gimmicky Zoning Solutions

Hiruy Hadgu

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On October 12, 2017, the Zoning Board of Howard County heard a proposal by Erickson Living - a retirement community management company - to build a retirement community in Clarksville, Maryland.

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In the presentation, Erickson's attorney cited a report by the Howard County Department of Citizen Services called "Planning for the Growth of the Older Adult Population in Howard County" to bring a sense of urgency around the demand for housing for older adults.

The report states that, by 2035, nearly 22% of the population in Howard County will be aged 65 or older and 11% will be 75 and older. The numbers in these age-groups represent a disproportionate growth rate compared to other age-groups.

As a way to help alleviate the expected increase in demand, Erickson proposes to build 1200 independent units and 240 continuing care units on 60 acres of land. As a comparison, the retirement community at Miller's Grant where tenants put down anywhere from $250,000 to $750,000 and pay high monthly service fees has 241 units on 50 acres.

Furthermore, because this parcel of land is outside the planned service area (PSA), it proposes to expand this area. A PSA is where water and sewer service currently exists. This means, as a public infrastructures, these services would need to be expanded to that parcel of land.

An additional element of this project is the proposal to rezone the land to a so-called community enhancement floating (CEF) zone, where Erickson wants to "improve" the roads and "alleviate" traffic congestion that currently exists, as a benefit to the community.

Worth noting here is that the project - nearly 1500 units - would bring additional traffic congestion.

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This is the prototypical way challenges are met in Howard County:

  1. Spend millions of dollars to expand the PSA and appease the whims of the developer,
  2. Create questionable zoning categories to serve as a Trojan horse for density (CEF), and
  3. Call the "improvements" that the proposal itself would require as an enhancement to justify the rezoning.

    The same report identifies six priorities to create an age-friendly community called "The Preferred Future".

    The third priority is to provide diverse housing options. This is characterized by the report as "a wide range of housing options [...] that are high-density, multi-generational, use principles of universal design, are mixed-use and mixed-income, and for which zoning rules require connectivity to convenient, scheduled and accessible transit options."

    According to the same report, those 65 and older are more likely to have household income below the median of $107,821 (2012 number) and 51% of them also still carry a mortgage.

    The economic picture becomes grimmer when considering other kinds of debt. A recent study indicated that parents are taking out on average $21,000 in student debt on behalf of their children (a national trend).

    Many want to age-in-place or downsize in order to make ends meet with a fixed income. It is hard to imagine how that is possible when the only options available are communities that require a down payment of $250,000 as a minimum or new McMansion homes in 55+ communities that require additional mortgage.

    To the extent that the homes should be mixed-use with accessible transit options, the Downtown Columbia area would be an ideal location. Yet, homes in Downtown Columbia are not getting built to accommodate young adults of modest means let alone older adults with fixed income.

    Take a look at the "typical" candidates for affordable housing in Downtown Columbia from the presentation made by Howard Hughes Corporation (HHC) a few years ago. Their assumptions are so flawed that they are not able to withstand a simple scrutiny.

    For example, a single mother (who earns $10/hour) and her son would pay $520/month to rent a one-bedroom apartment. An amount that represents more than a third of her montly gross income for a family of two. Meanwhile, the County is giving HHC $90 million in free money by way of tax increment financing (TIF). 

    Howard County's Senior Housing Master Plan developed in 2004 presented three goals:

    1. Provide housing for older adults within stable and attractive communities through maintenance, renovation and modification of existing homes.
    2. Produce new housing that meets the needs of older adults while not detracting from the existing neighborhoods.
    3. Provide affordable and diverse housing to meet the needs of low and moderate income seniors.

    While progress is being made on the first goal through the Senior Tax Credit and the Aging-in-Place Tax Credit, there is no evidence that suggests any progress is being made toward the second and third goals.

    In addition to those who desire independent living, a proportion of the older adult population will need assistance and caregivers.

    Those 80 years and older face heightened challenges. They need more help with meal preparation, transportation, medical management and administration, money management, telephone use, coping with technological advances and so on.

    The prevalence of Alzheimer's disease and related forms of dementia also increases. According to the Alzheimer's Association, 11% of those 65 and over and 38% of those 85 and over have Alzheimer's disease.

    By 2035, there will be nearly 24,000 older adults aged 85 and over. 

    The goals of alleviating affordable housing and transportation needs should extend to caregivers as well, for which there will be a greater demand over the next few years.

    In a survey conducted as part of the report "Planning for the Growth of the Older Adult Population in Howard County", the needs that scored the highest in terms of high importance versus low performance are to remain at home while aging and access to quality transportation. I think affordable housing for caregivers would also be another priority to add to this list.

    Gimmicky zone types such as CEFs only serve as ways to facilitate high density development without the attendant mitigation requirements.

    Going by the track record to the impacts on infrastructure of existing development, there is no telling how costly will be the expansion of the PSA.

    The County's older adults are clear. They want solutions to age-in-place and quality transportation. This is should be the County's focus.