Affordable Housing in Maryland: A Rural Developer’s Experience

Local Spotlight

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

While articles about sky rocketing rental and home sales prices, housing shortages, and homelessness have routinely made national headlines over the past few years, common misconceptions about affordable housing remain.

Figure 1 – Photo of housing at Liberty Hill, part of GCCAC’s Chautauqua West affordable housing development in Garrett County; courtesy, Duane Yoder.

To help deal with such issues, the Maryland legislature passed House Bill (HB) 1045 in 2019, which requires jurisdictions with planning and zoning authority to address housing as part of a comprehensive plan.

In light of this, the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) developed guidance (Models and Guidelines), online tools (Housing Data Dashboard) and other resources to assist local governments with developing or updating their housing elements.

This spring, Planning partnered with the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to write five articles[1] about DHCD’s  2020 report, The Maryland Housing Needs Assessment and 10-yr Strategic Plan, and how it can inform communities about analyzing and responding to their housing needs. Last month’s edition of Planning Practice Monthly reviewed House Bill (HB) 90 , which requires, as of January 2023, all housing elements developed for municipalities and non-charter counties to “affirmatively further fair housing,” in addition to affordable housing.

To further assist with new housing requirements, Planning will share the experiences of developers, governments, and non-profit partners around the state, which can provide insights and ideas for communities embarking on a comprehensive plan update or that are seeking to create a housing element for the first time.

This month, we met with Duane Yoder, President/CEO of the Garrett County Community Action Committee (GCCAC), a role he has filled since 1980. GCCAC is a nonprofit corporation founded in 1965 to combat the causes and effects of poverty by supporting families and individuals, allowing them to gain economic security and a better quality of life. A native of Garrett County, Duane served in similar roles for eight years in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

What can you tell us about Garrett County and affordable housing?

Maryland’s most western county, Garrett County, is the state’s third least populous and has suffered some significant economic hardships due to losses in traditional sources of employment and income. The county is part of central Appalachia and has exhibited many of the economic and demographic characteristics of the region, which historically relied on resource extraction in primary industries such as coal mining and logging.

Over the past two decades, the county has experienced some job growth, however, that growth is associated with the tourist or visitor industries and light manufacturing. Nonetheless, median household incomes are significantly lower than the rest of the state. According to 2016-2020 American Community Survey (ACS) Five-Year Estimates, the median household income for the state of Maryland is $87,063, while Garrett County’s is $54,542.

As a result, housing development in rural communities confronts unique challenges. Specifically, while household incomes are substantially lower in Garrett County compared to the rest of the state, development costs are not substantially different. This dichotomy creates underwriting challenges that frequently require deeper subsidies or grants to implement a project. It similarly creates a major barrier in using bond financing or the state’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) 4% housing tax credit program. As a result, GCCAC must successfully compete for funds via the state’s 9% LIHTC program and chase additional public and private grant monies.

Tell us about GCAAC’s role in creating affordable housing options in the county.

Teaming up with area partners, GCCAC advances its mission by creating housing and economic opportunities in the community and by bundling essential services that help residents gain economic assets and maintain stable and productive lives. As part of its role, over the years GCCAC has developed and now manages more than 700 affordable rental housing units and assisted nearly 1,000 households to purchase a home. As both a service provider and a community development corporation, GCCAC serves one in three households residing in the county and one in four individuals in one or more of these roles.

To provide more background and context, GCCAC’s housing development began with community organizing, working with tenants to improve the poor conditions existing in the county’s first and only low-income housing project. This was a 100-unit HUD-subsided development built in 1970 by an outside developer. Progress on both the site and project were marked with community opposition and political controversy.

The outcome was the removal of subsidies and its eventual bankruptcy. As part of the bankruptcy agreement, GCCAC gained control of the site, razed the existing structures, and built 60 high quality affordable units.  This helped turn the tides of years of opposition and Not In My Back Yard sentiment, or NIMBY-ism, into support for all our projects going forward. The result is that we are a trusted developer throughout the county and have become the county’s largest landlord in the ensuing years.

How has GCCAC worked/collaborated with local governments in developing local comprehensive plans?

In 2010 and 2020, GCCAC participated in stakeholder sessions conducted to gain input and recommendations for the county’s comprehensive planning process. As a provider of housing services and a developer of affordable housing, GCCAC was invited to review and make recommendations about the county’s first-ever housing element in the 2020 draft comprehensive plan.

GCCAC works directly with the eight incorporated municipalities in Garrett County, providing staff support to increase their capacity to pursue funding and implement revitalization strategies. These towns range in population from 300 to 2,100. In this role, GCCAC has helped towns acquire grant funds for consultants to assist in preparing comprehensive plans.

GCCAC is also providing input and preparing comments on both the process and content of each comprehensive plan, with particular attention paid to housing elements. The data we provide is focused primarily on need and demand, e.g., the number of people on waiting lists for affordable housing, the difficulty in finding units that qualify for Section 8 vouchers, and the number of homeless persons we serve.

How does a comprehensive plan typically inform or impact your work in developing affordable housing?

A comprehensive plan’s vision and goals regarding affordable housing shape a jurisdiction’s zoning, which in turn has a direct impact on GCCAC’s housing development. However, GCCAC’s experience is that comprehensive plans do not typically impact individual projects, given varying time frames and financing approvals. Projects often take years from conception to implementation and as a result, can overlap the time frames in which comprehensive plan updates and changes occur. Thus, projects may be started in the middle of an existing plan and may be finished after a new plan, with new goals and objectives, has been adopted.

Nonetheless, comprehensive plans are important in setting policies and providing guidance for GCCAC. GCCAC has successfully implemented two projects that did not fit the zoning ordinance of a municipality.  However, GCCAC requested and was granted a planned residential development approval and a zoning exception because the projects met the comprehensive plan’s goals and visions.

How do you anticipate HB 1045 may affect the development of affordable housing in Maryland?

HB 1045 will empower local governments desiring to address affordable housing to do so using a public platform that identifies policy goals in ways that can be both accountable and visionary. For jurisdictions that have up to now been silent on affordable housing, HB 1045 provides a forum in which it can be discussed in broad terms, and in the context of health, education, and economic development issues. It requires those working at the local level (governments, nonprofits, and those counties having housing authorities) to create a vision for housing and adopt goals that will facilitate regulations, dedicate resources, and implement practices supporting increased development of affordable housing.  

Tell us about an affordable housing project or projects that you felt was especially successful in advancing local government objectives and in meeting community needs.

Figure 2 – signage at Liberty Hill affordable housing development; courtesy, Duane Yoder.

The Chautauqua Park West project included the municipalities of Loch Lynn, Mountain Lake Park, and Oakland.GCCAC acted as the non-profit developer and project guarantor. In addition to the county, local government partners included Loch Lynn Heights, Mountain Lake Park, and Oakland.

First United Bank and Trust, DHCD, Enterprise Community, Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB) of Atlanta, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Garrett County government were financial partners. The development team also included the general contractor and architect, both of whom were involved from the earliest stages.

Planning for Chautauqua Park West began in 2016 and all phases were completed by 2022. It involved three sites in three different municipalities for a total of 77 units. Two of the sites required acquiring and rehabilitating 56 rent-subsidized town homes in Loch Lynn and Mountain Lake Park. A separate site in Oakland involved 21 new units made up of townhomes and apartment flats.

Describe aspects of the collaboration that made it successful? How did the various agencies and other partners assist in the development of the project?

The initial collaboration involved GCCAC working with the towns and the county on permitting and meeting zoning requirements. A second collaboration was required with DHCD, Enterprise, and USDA to allocate tax credit reservations and fund the three developments, while still retaining overall ownership of the 77 units. Chautauqua Park West was the sole owner of all 77 units but required separate tax credit reservations and allocations of expenses for the 21 new units and the 56 existing units. This meant separate reports using aggregate data, requiring a lot of coordination between the three towns and the various funding entities.

The third major partnership was formed to address the county’s goal to include mixed income units that were not restricted by household income eligibility. Initially, we sought the support of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), however, we learned that the project did not strictly meet the terms of an economic development project. Thus, we pivoted; negotiated with the county, ultimately arriving at an agreement and a county allocation to construct eight unrestricted rental units.

What was the largest hurdle to overcome in this process?

The project took five years from initial concept to completion. The biggest hurdle was getting the reservation for the state’s 9% LIHTC credits. Tax credits compose 65%-70% of development costs. Rural areas are at a disadvantage compared with populated regions because rural area median household incomes (AMI) are lower, while development and construction costs are the same. This results in needing larger subsidies, in the form of grants or other funding sources, such as deferred development fees. In the Chautauqua case, this necessitated obtaining funds from Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), FHLBs, and the USDA, which required additional time and coordination to pull all the various pieces together.  

What types of related developments do you foresee this project/collaboration may spur in the future?

Chautauqua Park West will lead to local government policies and practices subsidizing “middle housing” as an economic and workforce development strategy. The term middle housing refers to homes for households whose incomes are too high for existing federal subsidized housing (i.e., tax credits, rental assistance) but are too low to afford what it costs today to build the unit. While not a HUD term, it would generally fit households between 80 percent and 120 percent of area median income. In Garrett County, this would include for-sale-homes that are below $250,000 and rental units with rents no higher than $1,000 per month.  

Figure 2 – signage at Liberty Hill affordable housing development; courtesy, Duane Yoder.  

As a start, GCCAC is proposing to build a 122 mixed-use and mixed income-housing unit development (called River Hill) in Oakland. We are requesting that the county install infrastructure (water and sewer, storm water, and streets) using a tax incremental financing plan. GCCAC will utilize a development team to finance the design and construction of a mix of housing types including 36 apartment flats, 15 townhomes, 21 detached cottages, 10 median sized single-family homes, and 40 apartments.

GCCAC expects that successful completion of this project will lead to a similar, but smaller-scale, development in Grantsville. This project will be in line with a Greater Cumberland Committee and I-68 Alliance study, which documented a need for middle housing as a workforce strategy in the Tri-State region.

What lessons learned would you share with other communities and stakeholders seeking to embark on a similar project/plans?  

Most importantly, projects must be high quality and well managed. Our experience is that most communities welcome projects that are viewed as an asset, both aesthetically and functionally, which in our smaller, rural setting often means providing housing for friends or relatives.

Local ownership and control are also important to achieving to achieve acceptance and support. They foster a sense of accountability and create greater opportunity for communication with the community. Sustaining local capacity in rural areas is sometimes difficult given the lack of scale and underwriting problems, but it is necessary if there is to be impact at the community level. It is very important to avoid situations where cherry-picking occurs and developers only build the “easy” projects, moving on to leave more complicated projects and community housing needs unanswered.

For more information on incorporating housing elements into your jurisdictions’ comprehensive plan, please visit Planning’s Models and Guidelines: The Housing Element webpage or contact Joe Griffiths, Local Assistance and Training Manager at joseph.griffiths.maryland.gov.


[1] Links to these articles can be found under Additional Resources on Planning’s Models and Guidelines: The Housing Element webpage.

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