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Concern mounts in Oakland Mills over Verona purchase

By Luke Lavoie, llavoie@tribune.com

9:07 AM EST, November 14, 2013

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Although more than a month has passed since the Oakland Mills community was notified of the Howard County Housing Commission's purchase of Verona Apartments, residents' fears regarding the future of the 251-unit apartment complex have not dissipated.

"We still have very serious concerns about how this will impact our community moving forward," Bill Gray, chair of the Oakland Mills Village Board, said.

Concerns relate to potential increases at the complex, off Whiteacre Road, in low- and moderate-income housing. Housing commission officials say those concerns are unfounded.

Gray said residents feel affordable housing and low-income apartment complexes are being concentrated around the village center, which Gray said is "a severely impacted poverty area."

Those concerns are to be discussed at a village board meeting at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Other Barn in the Oakland Mills Village Center.

Also, in an attempt to quell concerns, the county has scheduled a walk-through of Verona for residents and village board members at 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17. In addition, the county will bus residents to Monarch Mills, a recently redeveloped mixed-income property, to show a potential redevelopment option for Verona.

"I just hope that we all get a better understanding of our [respective] points of view," Tom Carbo, executive director of the commission, said of the meeting. "We want to be able to listen to their concerns and address them best we can."

According to Carbo, the commission, which is separate from the Howard County government, finalized the purchase of the apartments for $39.5 million in October. The commission is required by law to designate at least 20 percent of the units as affordable housing, an increase over the current 15 percent requirement.

While the percentage of affordable units will increase, the rental rates for those units will not decrease because of the discrepancy between the existing market rate at Verona and Howard County's high median income, which is used to calculate affordable housing rates, according to information from the county.

Residents say their paramount concern, however, is what they perceive as the commission's long-term plans. Gray and others fear when the property is eligible for redevelopment in 10 years, the commission will elect to build a mixed-income development that will add units and increase the affordable housing to 40 percent, which the commission has done with previous projects.

According to Carbo, that alternative has been floated as a possibility, but that "there's no plan, at this point, for what to do in 10 years."

Gray said an affordable housing increase of that magnitude would further burden the community and the neighborhood around the village center.

According to a study using census data published by the Columbia Association in 2012, Oakland Mills had the lowest average household income at $94,000 a year, which is approximately $19,000 less than the average Columbia household.

Gray cites data from the Howard County School System to show the area around the village center has a particularly high concentration of lower income families. Approximately 56.5 percent of the students at Stevens Forest Elementary School, which draws from the neighborhoods around the village center, including Verona, are on the Free and Reduced Price Meals Program [FARM], which is an indicator of children living in poverty.

According to schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove, Stevens Forest has the highest percentage of students on FARM in the county. Talbott Springs Elementary School, which also draws from the neighborhood, has 47.6 percent of students on FARM.

For Housing Commissioner and Oakland Mills resident Ian Kennedy, those numbers are not reflective of performance of the community.

"That is not an indication of the talent of the students or the quality of the school," Kennedy said. "I'm more concerned about how the school is performing and I say that as someone who is going to send his children to that school."

Kennedy said the issues raised by the Oakland Mills community are separate from Verona, and the purchase gives the commission and the county "a skin in the game."

"I think practically speaking, the commission's purchase of Verona is not going to have a impact on the issue of concentration of housing type and affordability," Kennedy said. "In the short-term, there is no way that this purchase is anything but a net positive for the community. ... You have an owner who needs to protect its asset. We didn't buy Verona to concentrate affordable housing in Oakland Mills. We bought it because it is a profitable community."

While Kennedy and Gray may differ on some things, both agree the commission and the residents need to get on the same page.

"We need to start speaking a common language on this," Kennedy said.

Gray said, "I think that's important we try to work his thing out together."

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Sara Toth contributed to this report.