Monarch Mills

Monarch Mill housing complex in Columbia. (Staff photo by Brian Krista / May 11, 2014)

In response to community concerns about concentration of affordable housing in some areas of Howard County and citing a desire to "improve residential properties in mature neighborhoods," the County Council has introduced new legislation that takes a three-pronged approach to addressing affordable housing issues.

The bill, which was co-sponsored by all five council members, would limit where new affordable housing projects can be located by requiring the county's Department of Housing and the Housing Commission to plan and build projects in areas of the county where the poverty rate is less than 10 percent, according to census data.

In those pockets of the county, the bill would also require that fees paid by developers in lieu of providing a required quota of moderate income housing units for new residential projects could be used only to fund the county's settlement downpayment and rehabilitation loan programs.

Finally, the bill would expand the parameters of the county's Housing and Community Development Rehabilitation Loan Fund so that loans could be used not only for essential repairs to infrastructure, but also for home expansions and renovations.

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Council chair Calvin Ball, a Democrat who represents east Columbia, said the bill's intent was to "encourage a full spectrum" of housing.

"I fundamentally believe that when we live in a diverse community, we all get to benefit from all of our strengths, and that diversity includes socioeconomic diversity," he said. "We want to demonstrate that we believe in investment throughout our county, and we want every neighborhood to be strong and vibrant."

Ball's district includes the village of Oakland Mills, where last fall the Housing Commission announced it had purchased the 251-unit Verona Apartments complex, off of Whiteacre Road, for $39.5 million.

Following the sale, village residents turned out in large numbers to express fears that the county intended to redevelop the property and increase the future percentage of low-income housing units in the complex.

Ball said conversations with Oakland Mills residents, as well as "other folks in our community who had concerns about housing" played a role in the council's decision to craft a housing bill.

The 10 percent matrix would restrict new affordable housing development in 15 out of 154 census subdivisions in Howard County. The areas, called census tract blocks, divide the county into chunks of land that contain between 600 and 3,000 people.

Most of the census tract blocks affected are located in Columbia and southeastern Howard County, according to a map provided by the county.

According to an information sheet released by the council, the 10 percent boundary was chosen based on a 2008 Brookings Institute study, supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, directly linking the percentage of poverty levels in census tract block groups with the value of property and rental rates. Researchers found that poverty levels of 10 percent or greater correlated with decreased property maintenance and property values, according to the release.

Council vice-chair Courtney Watson, a Democrat who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge, called the bill a "stopgap measure.

"We were trying to work on a bill that would help not concentrate affordable housing further in the county, and this bill is an immediate, short-term fix to that concern," she said.

Watson said that in the long term, she would like to see a blue-ribbon committee assembled to do a full review of the county's housing policy and determine best practices for the future.

She said the issue of aging housing stock is "a challenge that's more new to Howard County.

"It's an evolving policy as we age," she added.

Council members said the legislation was a way to target reinvestment to communities that need it most.

"In practice, some [housing] programs need occasional fine-tuning to make sure the investments for a diverse and healthy housing stock are going where they are needed," Watson said in a statement accompanying the bill's introduction.

Ball gave the example of older homes in Oakland Mills, which he said could benefit from broader rehabilitation loans acting as an incentive for younger couples drawn to redevelopment in downtown Columbia to fix up aging homes in the community.