Terrasa introduces affordable housing bill for downtown Columbia

Amanda Yeager
Contact ReporterHoward County Times/Columbia Flier

Less than a month after developer Howard Hughes and a Howard County-appointed housing watchdog group presented a joint recommendation for creating affordable housing in downtown Columbia, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa has filed her own legislation laying out an alternative plan.

Terrasa's bill would require 15 percent of all new housing units developed downtown to be affordable to families earning between 40 and 80 percent of Howard County's area median income of $109,476. The legislation mirrors a proposal made in February by the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., the county's housing watchdog group.

The housing corporation's members later decided to endorse, with some modifications, a plan put forth by Howard Hughes that would create affordable housing units through a combination of low-income tax credit projects and a smaller amount of affordable units — 6 to 10 percent — incorporated into future development.

Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeast county, said she prefers the 15 percent standard and wanted to see it get full consideration alongside the joint Howard Hughes/CDHC recommendation, which the two groups presented to the council on Sept. 8.

"While I appreciate the time and energy that various people have put into recent attempts to reach an agreement, I believe the draft agreement compromises too much," Terrasa said in a statement. "It relieves [Howard Hughes] of their financial responsibility to provide affordable housing, and instead shifts that burden to the Howard County taxpayer.

According to an analysis by the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning, the Howard Hughes/CDHC plan will have a positive fiscal impact of $1.2 billion on the county over a 35-year period. The study also calculated the impact of requiring 15 percent of all housing units to be developed at 80 percent affordability, which would generate about $1.1 billion for the county over the same time period.

Terrasa said later she thinks a 15 percent affordable housing requirement "is the tried and true way of producing affordable housing in the county, and I don't see any reason Howard Hughes should be treated differently or given preferential treatment in any way."

New developments in other parts of Howard County are required to incorporate either 10 or 15 percent moderate income housing units, depending on their location, or else developers must pay a fee-in-lieu to the county. Columbia, with its more flexible zoning rules, does not have the same requirement.

On paper, Terrasa’s legislation would create about 700 units of affordable housing, while the joint recommendation proposed by Howard Hughes and the CDHC would create nearly 1,000 units.

However, the 970 low and moderate income units proposed by Howard Hughes come with a requested bonus density of 1,030 additional units, bringing the total number of units downtown to 6,530 – as opposed to 5,500, the original cap for downtown Columbia development, which Terrasa’s plan preserves. Howard Hughes officials have said the extra density would help offset the cost of developing affordable units.

Terrasa also pointed out that 110 of the affordable units proposed under the Howard Hughes/CDHC plan would be built on the site of the former Columbia Flier building, which is not within the bounds of downtown Columbia.

Roy Appletree, a member of the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition and a former CDHC board member, said not all units deemed affordable are created equal.

“Those numbers are apples, oranges and pears,” said Appletree, who resigned from the board after voting against the joint recommendations. 

“I think the type of unit being developed under this plan is superior,” Appletree said of Terrasa’s bill, because units could be evenly spaced throughout downtown and developed in conjunction with currently planned projects. They would also focus on being affordable to moderate income families who do not qualify for section 8 federal housing vouchers but who cannot afford rents at or near market rate, he said.

Paul Casey, president of the CDHC, said he couldn't comment specifically on Terrasa's legislation because the organization's board had not yet had the chance to review it.

However, he said, "the past four months of negotiations and discussions with Howard Hughes brought our board to a point where they really believed very strongly and approved an approach that reflected the fact that it's more likely to ensure the success of developing more affordable units if we work cooperatively with Howard Hughes and develop a plan together."

Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development for Howard Hughes, declined to comment on Terrasa’s plan.

In a statement, the Rev. Robert Turner, clergy co-chair for People Acting Together in Howard, a grassroots organization that has advocated for more affordable housing in the county, said the group is looking at the particulars of Terrasa's proposal.

"PATH appreciates Councilwoman Terrasa's decision to act in a way that she feels will work to maximize affordable housing in downtown Columbia," Turner said. "We are still analyzing the details of all proposals, but PATH is concerned that the result of Councilwoman Terrasa's legislation could be to decrease the overall number of affordable units as compared to the joint proposal of the Hughes Corp. and the CDHC."

Turner added that the group is also looking at the long-term enforceability and affordable unit distribution of the joint recommendation.

Before making its way to the council, Terrasa's legislation, which includes General Plan and zoning regulation amendments, will first be reviewed by the county's Department of Planning and Zoning and then will be presented to the Planning Board. 

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