Sharon Suarez: Champion of Affordable Housing – the Heart of Great Planning


Women in Planning Series: Part IV

by Kristen E. Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner 

Courtesy of Sharon Suarez

Unfortunately for me, I have never met Sharon Suarez in person, and was unable to do so in preparing for this article…another modest example of the collateral damage that comes of living in times of a global pandemic. From a recent phone interview with her, however, I can say this with certainty: Sharon Suarez is – in the best possible sense of the phrase – a genuine force of nature! In discussing her nearly 30-year career as a certified planner, I came away in awe of her breadth of experience and, by all appearances, her inexhaustible fount of both inspiration and energy.

Suarez is originally from Morgantown, WV, and has lived in the heart of Historic Frederick for over 25 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts (BA) cum laude in Interdisciplinary Studies from WVU, an MPA in Executive Leadership from American University, and Preservation Planning Certification (Section 106 Certification) from the Welch Center for Graduate and Professional Studies at Goucher College.  

Over the course of her career, Suarez has worked in both the public and private sectors. While she claims to be semi-retired, she is currently the Vice-Chair of the Frederick County Planning Commission (FCPC), FCPC Liaison to the Frederick County Transit Services Advisory Council, and the Regent of the Carrollton Manor Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR).  

The list of organizations she has worked for and/or in support of, and the titles to her credit, are formidable. Too many to innumerate here, some of her past roles have included: serving on the boards of the Maryland Planning Commissioners Association (MPCA); the Center for the Study of Economics in Philadelphia; the Montgomery County Affordable Housing Conference; the Frederick Chapter of the West Virginia University Alumni Association (Organizing President); the City of Frederick’s Fair Housing Commission (Organizing Chair); and the Maryland Chapter of the American Planning Association (MDAPA) for which she was President from 2011 through 2013. 

About these roles Suarez says, “I really enjoy training commissioners and planners on the topics of social equity, public participation, and ethics,” which she has done at local, regional, and national venues. (I can personally attest to the fact that she is wonderfully persuasive in encouraging every planner she meets to become certified.) 

Aside from her passion for training and continuing education, one area of expertise that especially stood out when we spoke was a commitment to the importance of affordable housing, especially as a key component of any good comprehensive planning effort. This topic is quite timely given Planning’s recent publishing of our draft Housing Element (HB 1045, 2019) Models and Guidelines. Thus, I asked her to share with our readers some of her experiences surrounding affordable housing and any lessons learned:  

In 1998, I started my own consulting firm (Suarez LLC) and joined the Communities Group LLC of independent engineers, architects, and planners to form a team that would conduct inspections of HUD-backed properties. These inspections provide the information that would become the basis of the nationwide database of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Real Estate Assessment Center (HUD REAC) portfolio.1  

Most of my inspections were at properties in New England, where I visited hundreds of properties and inspected thousands of individual affordable housing units over the next few years. I discovered that most the properties were very well kept and most of the residents were extremely hard-working and realized my preconceptions of affordable housing and the folks who lived there had been way off base. My newfound awareness and resulting ‘perception adjustment’, if you will, was humbling.

Later on, my firm was hired by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission (HOC) to conduct Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) inspections of their properties – both individual sites scattered across the county, as well as units in apartment buildings. Some of the units owned by HOC had been built as part of the county’s Moderately-Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. Like many planners, I had heard of this program which, started in the 1970s, was the nation’s oldest continuously operating MPDU program of its kind.

It was not until I inspected a few of these MPDUs that I learned, firsthand, just how hard it is to tell them apart from the market rate units surrounding them. I was truly surprised! I still remember standing on a street in Potomac looking for MPDUs. I knew they were there, having the street addresses in hand, but just could not believe my eyes as they simply could not be distinguished from the other houses. I learned that Montgomery County’s legislative philosophy and planning practices required that MPDUs be constructed to fit seamlessly into the community.  

So, while I had used the term “affordable housing” before, it was not until my experience conducting REAC inspections that I truly understood what affordable housing meant, how good affordable housing could be, and how residents were often misperceived by the general public. After all, even now, when most people hear that phrase, they think of highly subsidized public housingwhich, whether fair or accurate, frequently comes with other negative connotations such as poor quality, poorly maintained properties that are subject to poverty and crime.  

As Suarez discovered first-hand, this bias against affordable housing is based upon common, but difficult to change, fundamental misconceptions about what affordable housing really is. Many Americans do not realize that, under current guidelines, those spending greater than 30 percent of their income are considered housing cost burdened, and those spending in excess of 50 percent are considered severely cost burdened, and are in need of affordable housing.

This phenomenon and related trends are well understood by planners and affordable housing advocates. In particular, the number of people in need of affordable housing nationwide has increased dramatically over the past several decades. According to the 2014-2018 American Community Survey Five-Year Estimates, 50.3% of Maryland renters and 21% of Maryland homeowners with a mortgage are housing cost burdened. This includes many seniors, college graduates, single-parent families, as well as a good number of double income households. 

Screenshot of Maryland data compiled by NLHIC

Suarez goes on to observe that her experience as a HUD REAC inspector was invaluable to her future endeavors as a planner working on a variety of affordable housing efforts, “The over-arching lessons from my time doing REAC work were simple:     

  • The best – and the most livable – affordable housing is part of a larger community, not isolated from it 
  • Most residents of affordable housing have AT LEAST one full-time job 
  • The most successful and sustainable affordable housing programs are in communities that address housing in their comprehensive land use plans.” 

In 2000, Suarez was able to put this knowledge of affordable housing and her planning experience together in her role as project manager of a team with Communities Group, LLC working on a HOPE VI grant application for the Norfolk Redevelopment & Housing Authority (NRHA).2  The Hope VI process was a fast-tracked comprehensive master planning process with affordable housing as its focus.  

For the NRHA Hope VI application, Suarez’s team identified local issues, conducted an extensive public consensus-building program, and garnered over $170 million in local and regional matching funds. NRHA’s application was one of only ten across the nation to receive the full $35 million grant award.  

Photo(s) source: Broad Creek Apartments

The design solved many of the problems that had been identified through the public outreach process. The resulting affordable housing and community revitalization project consisted of 1,000 new homes, a Town Center, including the new $28 million Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, a new regional library, light rail stop, storm water drainage, road and utility improvements, commercial and retail revitalization, and job creation.   

Because so many benefits would accrue to the greater Norfolk community, residents and businesses became enthusiastic supporters of the Norfolk HOPE VI project. Not surprisingly, Suarez added another maxim to her affordable housing list: 

  • What is good for affordable housing must also be good for the entire community.

From 2003 to 2012, Suarez was the coordinator for housing research and policy at the Montgomery County Research and Technology Center (RTC) at Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MN-CPPC), where she provided management and other significant contributions to RTC’s major housing research and policy projects and studies for Montgomery County including: the 55+ Housing Preference Survey; Park Housing Study; Residential Capacity Study; Interjurisdictional Housing Affordability Study; the County Council’s 30-year review of the MPDU Ordinance; the County’s workforce housing policy and legislation; annual Economic Forces Report, the housing elements of small area plans; and the review of development applications for MPDU compliance.  

Finally, she led the rewrite of the Housing Element of the Montgomery County General Plan, adopted in 2011, so that new housing policies would reduce regulatory barriers to affordable housing, preserve existing affordable housing resources, and include the cost of energy and transportation in the “true cost” of housing.   

Now a highly recognized housing planner in Maryland and frequent speaker on the topic, Suarez is currently participating in the review of the Frederick County MPDU program. Last year, she spoke to the Frederick County Affordable Housing Council on the relationship between cost of housing and, in 2018, she prepared a detailed pro-bono report for the City of Frederick on the impacts of Short Term Residential Rentals upon housing availability, in general, and the availability of long-term affordable rentals, in particular. The report discussed impacts to local revenues, made legislative recommendations, and compared best practices from other communities.  

In addition to her myriad accomplishments, Sharon Suarez has also led teams in comprehensive planning, master planning, environmental planning, and land use and housing studies for clients stateside and abroad, including for several military bases across Germany. Of these all these projects, however, Suarez cites her work as a HUD Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) inspector as leading to her understanding – and undeniably act as a champion – of affordable housing in Maryland and beyond.   

Personally, I hope she can be persuaded to come out of her “retirement!” 

_______________________

[1]    Suarez further explains: “When the REAC inspection effort began in 1998, HUD REAC did not have a handle on the condition of its real estate inventory. The REAC inspection program provided that information: inspectors documented the conditions at properties using handheld computers and a specially developed reporting program. The reports were uploaded from the field to HUD REAC, and these reports provided HUD REAC with information needed to ensure that requests for loans and grants were justified and, once awarded, that those loans and grants were used properly.”

[2] The Hope VI program is administered by HUD, having grown out of HOPE VI grew out of the work of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, established by Congress in 1989. HOPE VI stands for Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere.

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