- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

Montgomery County officials have issued building permits to developers for more than a decade without requiring them, as county law specifies, to construct affordable housing in their subdivisions, The Washington Times has learned.

The county’s practice did not change until the Clarksburg planning scandal this past summer prompted the responsible housing and permitting agencies to start following the law in September, according to records and interviews with officials.

Elizabeth Davison, the county’s housing director since 1996, said her agency had not carried out steps specified by law for affordable-housing agreements with developers “for years,” but instead followed a “less-formal system.”

“Why?” Ms. Davison said in response to a reporter’s question. “You’d have to go back and look at why that had happened under previous managers.”

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat completing his third four-year term and running for governor, last week accepted an award from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) for excellence in affordable-housing programs.

Montgomery for decades has enjoyed a regional and national reputation for innovation in such efforts, and Mr. Duncan thanked Ms. Davison in accepting the award.

But Ms. Davison’s agency, the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA), routinely failed to sign required agreements with developers before permits were issued and construction began. The agreements set a timetable for building affordable housing units.

“It’s not fair to say we weren’t checking” to make sure required affordable units were built, Duncan spokesman David Weaver said Wednesday. “In certain cases, we were not informed.”

Mr. Weaver said Montgomery programs are “a national model” for supplying affordable housing.

Since 1973, county law has required developers to allot 12.5 percent of residential subdivisions to “moderately priced dwelling units,” or MPDUs, in projects of more than 20 homes. The law specifies that agreements providing for the affordable housing be signed before building permits are approved.

However, the Department of Permitting Services has issued hundreds of building permits to developers who had not signed the agreements.

“Up until September, we were not asking for agreements prior to issuance of building permits,” said Robert Hubbard, director of the permitting department. “We just dropped the ball on it. The department was unaware of the requirement.

“That is not in accordance with the law,” Mr. Hubbard said. “When it came to light, we immediately changed our procedure.”

The Times could not determine immediately the number of Montgomery subdivisions affected, and exactly how, by the lack of enforcement.

In some cases, such as the 1,300-home Clarksburg Town Center, the required agreements providing for affordable units were not signed until years after construction had begun.

In other cases, such as the 712-home King’s Crossing development in Boyds, the agreements were not signed until all market-priced units already were finished.

The additional 102 affordable units required at King’s Crossing have not built, even though the regularly priced units were finished in 2003.

Iin Clarksburg, the developer is behind schedule in building the required affordable units.

Wayne Goldstein, a resident active in the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a consortium of homeowners associations, said the county’s “record on affordable housing is a joke.”

Ms. Davison’s agency is responsible for most of the county’s affordable housing programs. As a department head, she, like Mr. Hubbard, reports to Mr. Duncan and serves at his pleasure.

A third agency, the Department of Park and Planning, has come under intense scrutiny and criticism since the county’s independent Planning Board determined earlier this year that more than 500 houses had been built too high or too close to the street in the Clarksburg Town Center project.

The Times first reported these and other violations of legally binding site plans for the project in June.

Mr. Duncan has sought to transfer Park and Planning’s zoning-enforcement authority to DPS in the wake of the Clarksburg scandal. The County Council, which proposed the enforcement switch, is expected to vote on the legislation in February.

Mr. Weaver, Mr. Duncan’s spokesman, assigned most of the blame to Park and Planning.

“There’s no question there were serious shortcomings … with regard to the planning department communicating critical information to our housing authorities about developments that had been approved and required [affordable housing],” Mr. Weaver said.

Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage did not return a phone call seeking comment.

It is not clear how many moderately priced units fell through the cracks and went unbuilt despite the law because of the lack of communication among, and enforcement by, the three agencies.

Ms. Davison and Mr. Weaver insisted that no affordable housing has been lost.

Ms. Davison said there are about 4,000 moderately priced units available in the MPDU program, which is the county’s largest affordable-housing program and targets low- and middle-income buyers.

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