As downtown Columbia develops, adjustments to affordable housing requirements recommended

A question remains: how does affordable housing fit into downtown Columbia's plan?

Downtown Columbia is on the move.

Merriweather Post Pavilion is getting a facelift; there's money in the budget for the first phase of the Inner Arbor park; and the Metropolitan, Columbia's newest apartment complex, is open to residents.

Still, a question remains: how does affordable housing fit into the plan?

So far, none of the 817 units approved – 380 at the Metropolitan and another 437 in an apartment building planned for next door – are slated to be moderately priced.

A recent report from the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation, the organization tasked with ensuring that a full range of housing is built downtown, has recommended the County Council take a second look at the requirements for developing Columbia's city center.

"We do not want to develop a preserve of luxury housing separate and distinct from the rest of Howard County and Columbia," CDHC President Paul Casey told the council last month. "Affordable housing should not be concentrated in one area but should be throughout the downtown units."

The corporation's report outlines a possible path forward.

While the county's current policy is to allow developers to pay a fee-in-lieu instead of building affordable units, CDHC's report recommends requiring all future projects downtown to contain at least a small percentage of moderate income housing units, or housing that is affordable to people who make between 40 and 80 percent of the median income in Howard County.

In all, 15 percent of the remaining 4,683 units planned for downtown Columbia – or 703 units – should fall within the affordable range, the report suggests.

To make this goal easier to attain, the corporation recommends giving developers more flexibility: some apartment complexes might contain 45 percent moderate income units, while others could contain just 5 percent.

Fees-in-lieu already paid to the corporation for approved developments could be freed up to use as leverage alongside state and federal financing to make the projects possible, the report says. A trust fund set up by the corporation contained $2.3 million from fee-in-lieu payments as of the end of last year.

Former County Executive Ken Ulman and County Council members requested the report last fall, after CDHC members warned county officials that there would likely not be enough money to build the target number of affordable housing units. The county's affordable housing goal for downtown is currently 825 units priced at a level affordable to a person making 50 percent of the median area income.

"We thought we had something that was going to work," County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat who represents downtown Columbia, said of the plan. "It had a certain cost to the developer, and I think there certainly is a sense that when you make a deal, you really need to at least try to honor it, if not to the letter, then to the spirit.

"We know the fee's not working," she added. "We're going to go for the spirit, which is that we need to have affordable housing downtown – so how do we get there and make it fair?"

Howard Hughes, the "master developer" behind downtown Columbia's biggest projects – from the Metropolitan to the mixed-use Crescent development, which will bring 2,300 residential units, retail, office and civic space to a half moon-shaped plot of land near Merriweather Post Pavilion – has made good on all of its obligations so far, which include a $1.5 million one-time payment to the CDHC and $2,000 per unit that is not considered affordable.

Sigaty said the council has requested information from Howard Hughes about what it might cost to build affordable units. She plans on launching the discussion at the council's June monthly meeting, provided that budget talks are finished by then.

Meanwhile, local activists from the community advocacy group People Acting Together in Howard said they plan to hold a meeting at the county's headquarters in Ellicott City before the council's public hearing on May 18 to call for more affordable housing.

"We see this as a moral issue," said Cynthia Marshall, lead organizer for PATH. "People who work in Howard County should be able to afford to live here, and people who contribute to the community their entire lives should be able to afford to retire here."

Howard Hughes Senior Vice President John DeWolf said in a statement that the developer looked forward to "sharing some creative ideas to meet the goal of achieving full spectrum housing in downtown Columbia."

Most of the rest of the county has some kind of moderate income housing requirement already established by zoning law, according to Tom Carbo, the director of the county's housing department. Countywide, there are currently 434 moderate income housing units for rent and more than 150 for sale, he said.

Columbia, which is in the New Town district, is zoned for more flexibility.

Carbo said he thought an inclusive housing requirement could work in downtown.

"It hasn't been difficult for the developers who've been doing it elsewhere in the county, and they've certainly gotten used to the idea. It's working quite well everywhere else," Carbo said.

Downtown, developers have to contend with the higher costs associated with building high-rise buildings. But these could be supported by higher rents, he said: "I think it can be done – it all comes down to the percentage of units."

Casey stressed that discussions about affordable housing with Howard Hughes have been "healthy and ongoing.

"Everyone is in favor," he said. "It's a question of how we get there."

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