Howard County residents lined up along the side of Little Patuxent Parkway Wednesday evening to call for affordable housing options in downtown Columbia as the area continues to develop.
The rally, organized by Full Spectrum Housing -- a local group of housing advocates who meet on a monthly basis -- drew some 75 people, who waved signs and chanted on the side of the roadway as cars drove past, often offering a supportive honk, and pedestrians decked out in hats and cowboy boots walked by on their way to a nearly sold-out performance by country artist Kenny Chesney at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
With its increasing role as an employment center and downtown hub, Columbia should be the site of a range of housing options at different price points, said Grace Kubofcik, a Full Spectrum Housing member.
"This is the urban core in Howard County; we don't have another one," said Kubofcik, who wore a fluorescent yellow vest for visibility as she passed out signs and moved along the sidewalk greeting ralliers. "It needs to have an opportunity for those who support us" -- such as teachers, restaurant workers and nurses, all of whom might not make enough money to afford a condo downtown.
So far, none of the 817 units approved downtown will be moderately priced. A housing task force report released this spring recommended the county consider a change to its law to require that, moving forward, 15 percent of all units built in downtown Columbia fall within a price range affordable to people who make between 40 and 80 percent of the county's median income.
The County Council plans to take up the discussion next month.
Officials from Howard Hughes, the developer behind most of downtown Columbia's housing projects, said they were working on a proposal of their own that they plan to present in June. Howard Hughes has complied with all of the county's current affordable housing requirements for Columbia, which include paying a $2,000 fee-in-lieu per unit that is not considered affordable.
Columbia resident Anne Berkowitz, a retired Baltimore County teacher, said her salary alone "would preclude me living in Howard County."
Berkowitz and others pointed to Columbia developer Jim Rouse's vision of a community where, he once said, "a CEO and a janitor could live in the same neighborhood," according to former state Del. Liz Bobo.
"Jim Rouse built this community on two principles: economic justice and racial justice," Bobo, a Democrat who also served as county executive from 1986 to 1990, said. "We're really behind on economic justice."
Grace Morris, the executive director of the Columbia Housing Corporation, which owns and manages 150 housing units in Howard County for elderly and disabled residents, said "there's not enough" affordable housing in Columbia for everyone who needs it.
"We get phone calls everyday" from people inquiring about affordable housing openings, Morris said. "Our waiting lists are several years long."
Advocates for domestic violence victims, the homeless and people with disabilities also joined the rally. Affordable housing, they said, is a key to stability for each of those groups.
Pam and Steve Beck said they wanted to ensure that Brandon, their 30-year-old son who has autism, is able to live on his own.
"We didn't want him to be totally dependent on us," said Steve Beck. So, the couple applied for a section 8 federal housing voucher and eventually got him some support.
"We're here because we want to see everybody have a fair chance," Beck said.
Jane O'Leary, the executive director of Bridges to Housing Stability, works to help support people on the brink of homelessness or who become homeless after a crisis strikes.
"Howard County, somewhere along the way, became a place for elites," she said.
Local realtor Kim Nowalk, who has worked for Keller Williams for 20 years, said she often works with buyers who want to move to Howard County but have a hard time finding a home in their price range.
When one of the more affordable options in Columbia is a $250,000 condo in the village of Hickory Ridge, "it's tough," she said.
Nowalk thinks more affordable options will also draw young people to the area.
"It will make our community more vibrant," she said.