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County's purchase of apartments concerns Oakland Mills residents

The Howard County Housing Commission's plans to purchase an apartment complex near the Oakland Mills Village Center has some residents concerned that the community is being targeted for low- to moderate-income housing.

The commission is finalizing this month a contract to acquire Verona Apartments, a 251-unit complex located off Whiteacre Road, for $39.5 million, according to Tom Carbo, the county's director of Housing and Community Services.

"People are very concerned that the plans will increase the amount of low-income housing," said Bill Gray, chair of the Oakland Mills Village Board of Directors. "I think what they are doing is targeting and concentrating, which would significantly increase the stress in the community."

Carbo said, "There's no basis for those concerns. We don't anticipate any changes except for some minor improvements. ... It's a property we wanted to be able preserve and a project that can help the commission maintain its revenue streams."

The commission is obligated by law to designate 20 percent of the units as affordable housing, said Carbo. Because of Howard County's high median income level, which is used to calculate affordable housing rates, Carbo anticipates there will be little to no change in the monthly rents once the commission assumes control.

According to Carbo, the market rate for the average one-bedroom apartment in Verona is $1,074 a month. Carbo said the commission plans to set the affordable rates at the "moderate-income" level, which, if changed today, would actually increase the rent for a one-bedroom to $1,124 a month.

"Market rate for the property is at affordable levels for moderate income families," said Carbo.

Carbo said new rates will be implemented as apartments turn over, and that no residents will be displaced or have their rents increased as a result of the purchase.

Gray said Oakland Mills already has one of the highest concentrations of low- to moderate-income housing in the county, most notably Forest Ridge apartments, a 106-unit complex designated as very low-income housing located near the village center.

"We just don't believe you should concentrate any low-income housing in the Oakland Mills area particularly around the village center," Gray said.

Carbo said that is not the commission's intention. In fact, Carbo said, the commission has no plans to lower rates and will explore increasing them for the 80 percent of renters paying the market rate.

Redevelopment possible

According to Carbo, the commission could redevelop the property in the future using federal grants, which is what the commission did at Burgess Mill Station in Ellicott City and Monarch Mills in East Columbia.

"That would be an option; to do something similar to what we've done there and help revitalize that community. We want to put something there the community can be very proud of," he said.

Monarch Mills and Burgess Mill Station, which opened in 2011 and 2013, respectively, are considered mixed-income redevelopments with 40 percent of the housing designated at affordable rates, or "work-force housing."

According to Carbo, the federal government uses the median-income level for the Baltimore metropolitan area to calculate those affordable rates, which is approximately $15,000 less than the county's figure.

However, Carbo said that loss is mitigated by the market-rate housing, which is substantially higher than market-rate at a complex like Verona. For example, market-rate units at Burgess Mill can cost as much as $2,300 a month.

Carbo said redeveloping the Verona site would have to wait at least 10 years, when the project is scheduled for refinancing. If a redevelopment occurred, the commission would likely increase the number of units, Carbo said.

"We'd hope that the folks at Oakland Mills would take a look at those and like to have something like that in their community," he said. "I don't know what the commission will do in 10 years. There are a lot of factors that will go into that decision."

According to Gray, the proposition of increasing density and adding more low- to moderate-income housing in the future is a deal-breaker for some residents.

"You reach a tipping point where the community can't handle it," Gray said. "We want something that is positive for the community as well as the county, and the current plans would not do that."

Gray added that the community feels blindsided by the purchase, which was revealed to Gray in early September, four months after the complex became available on the market.

According to Carbo, because of confidentiality agreements, the commission could not make known its interest in purchasing the building.

County Council member Calvin Ball, who represents Oakland Mills, said the confidentiality agreements made transparency difficult.

"I would have liked the community to been engaged much earlier, but my understanding was the commission was constrained," Ball said. "There is an opportunity to improve communication so that everyone can fully understand the process, feel engaged and have a voice."

Ball said the commission's ownership will bring stability to the complex, and that a Monarch Mills-type redevelopment could potentially revitalize the center.

"I fully support a full spectrum of housing opportunities and I think a community benefits from having that kind of socio-economic diversity throughout its neighborhoods," Ball said. "Ten years is a long time. There should be an open and transparent process that engages the community and the elected officials representing Oakland Mills in the discussion of what's best for our community moving forward."

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