'Affordable housing' study short of expectations

Sussex County Council Member Lynn Rogers last summer asked for the assemblage of a committee to investigate affordable housing options for the county.

When the investigative coalition (convened by County Administrator Robert Stickels) reported its findings on moderate-priced housing to the council Tuesday, Rogers found the presenters had mixed words, and meanings.

“They changed the name on me,” Rogers said. “I wanted to hear about affordable housing. They gave me moderate-priced housing.”

The difference goes beyond semantics.

The “moderate-priced” moniker, according to the committee, means the homeowners will likely be individuals or families in the income range of $55,100 to $68,875.

“Affordable housing,” on the other hand, falls somewhere between HUD standards and those “moderate-priced” establishments, Rogers said, and would be intended for blue-collar workers or households with total incomes less than $50,000 per year.

“If you’re born, raised and work in Rehoboth, Lewes or Slaughter Beach, you shouldn’t have to live in Greenwood,” Rogers said. “It’s sad that we’re losing our workforce to the west.”

Still, the committee argued, moderate-priced housing would be an asset to communities struggling to retain professionals in the education, law enforcement, social services and medical fields.

From 1990 to 2000, according to Karen Horton, principal planner for the Delaware State Housing Authority, Sussex County’s population increased from 113,229 to 156,638 — a 38.3 percent upturn.

The majority of newcomers, however, were the well-off “young elderly,” or people entering pre-retirement or early retirement, she said.

“This rising influx of affluent households has resulted in a demand for public utilities, health and human services, government services, and retail and service businesses, thereby increasing the need for housing for persons of moderate income who are employed in the stated capacities,” Horton said.

“Housing currently built is not for the county’s workforce, and these are the people who truly serve Sussex County,” she added.

A presentation, narrated by Horton and Russell Huxtable of the Milford Housing Development Corporation, showed that households earning even 80 percent of Sussex County’s $55,000 median income could not afford median housing prices anywhere in the county.

And, furthermore, 86 percent of the county’s workforce earns less than 80 percent of the median income.

“I’m sure they can find substandard, poorly constructed houses,” Horton said. “But we want safe, inhabitable homes.”

Noting that longer commutes contribute to air and noise pollution, traffic congestion and road damage, Horton advised the elected assembly to adopt a voluntary code of guidelines and incentives for developers to provide affordable housing in the area.

“For the most part, what we found [was] the most effective programs worked when they were mandatory,” Horton said. “However, if you wanted a voluntary program, if you provided sufficient incentives, you could get an effective voluntary program as well.”

Huxtable said Sussex County should attempt to have the moderately-priced housing units (MPHU’s) placed in developments selling — not renting — 35 or more units.

“Obviously, we don’t want these units to be ostracized in the community,” Huxtable said. “The intent is to disperse units throughout the development, with the exact location to be determined at the site plan approval.”

Incentives for building MPHU’s, Huxtable said, could include density bonuses, expedited reviews and plan-review fee waivers.

Eligibility for living in an MPHU could include prerequisites such as being a permanent resident of the county for three years, being employed in the county for one year and having a household income of less than $68,875 for a family of four.

But Councilman George Cole, the first to point out the discrepancy between “affordable” and “moderately-priced,” questioned the legitimacy of securing space for moderate-income families who could potentially qualify for mortgages in excess of $200,000.

“Those aren’t the people who really need help,” Cole said. “So [low-income] people are still forgotten?”

Gina Miserendino of the Delaware Housing Coalition countered in support of MPHUs. “I think it’s important to see this as one tool in the toolbox,” she emphasized.

The council will take up the issue again at a workshop scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 26.

In other Sussex County business:

• The council approved the Little League Delaware District 3’s request for $5,000 in additional funds. The money — $1,000 from each of the five districts’ 2005 Youth and Activity accounts — will be spent on preparations for the Senior League Softball World Series, according to Martin Donovan, director of District 3.

That competition starts in August at the Lower Sussex Little League Complex in Roxana. Each night of play is expected to attract 1,700 spectators, Donovan said. The tournament, for 14-to-16-year-old girls, will welcome teams from Latin America, Asia and Europe, and the hosting county is awarded an automatic bid.

Last year, the team from Laurel finished fifth in the world.

• Brian Page, Sussex County’s preservation officer, pledged to contribute 50 percent of the proceeds from his new book, “Delaware in the Great Depression,” to the county. The author and historian’s first book in a pending three-volume set on the First State details Delaware’s relative success during the dark days of the 1930s.

In those years, Page said, Delaware produced more patents per capita than any other state and was the only one where no banks defaulted. “Delaware in the Great Depression” is available for sale in most major book retail outlets and will be on reserve in all county libraries.

• Stickels made the following announcements:

o The Sussex County Advisory Committee for the Aging and Adults with Physical Disabilities will meet on Monday, July 18, at 10 a.m. The Sussex County West Administrative Complex on North Dupont Highway in Georgetown will host the gathering. The general public is invited to attend.

o The Delaware Department of Transportation will hold a public workshop on Thursday, July 14, at the Indian River Fire Company, Station 2, Banks Road in Long Neck, between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. DelDOT will discuss the addition of shoulders and improvements to the existing pavement conditions and drains on S 298, Banks Road.

o The Delaware Department of Transportation will hold a second public workshop on Thursday, July 21, at City Hall, 414 High Street, Seaford, between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. There, DelDOT will discuss efforts to reduce road congestion and improve safety at U.S. Route 13’s intersections with Herring Run Road, Stein Highway, Middleford Road and Concord Road.

• The council authorized Russell Archut, assistant county engineer, to conduct a study on the Fenwick Island sanitary sewer district. Starting this weekend, the project will survey the water flow at 10 manholes. The study will cost $45,000.

• Council members approved a plan-review fee increase requested by CABE Associates Inc., the engineering firm contracted by Sussex County. The fees for reviewing projects, such as housing developments, sewers and pump stations, will rise about 20 percent.

• The council deferred a request from Canal Place LLC to change the zoning of Lynn Lee Village. Discussion on the matter will be resumed at the county’s next Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.

Canal Place intends to transform the 14.6-acre, 87-lot mobile home park in Ocean View into an 87-lot, single-family home development. A lengthy battle between the proprietor, Key Box 5, and the tenant association was abruptly resolved when a chancery court terminated the residents’ 99-year leases, which were signed in 1987, provided they are paid fair market value for the properties. Only four holdouts remain.

• Due to summer recess, the Sussex County Council will not meet July 5 or July 12. The next regularly schedule meeting will be July 19.