Columbia residents criticize county purchase of Verona apartments

More than 300 residents attended a Columbia village board meeting at the Other Barn in Oakland Mills Tuesday night to protest the Howard County Housing Commission's $39.5 million purchase of the Verona apartments located near the village center.

Residents' primary concern is that the commission will increase affordable units on the 251-unit property, located off of Whiteacre and Stevens Forest roads, when it comes time for redevelopment in 10 years.

"The consensus is pretty clear here, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs has its fair share of low-income housing," said Dan Zinger, who has lived in Oakland Mills since 1972.

The commission maintains that while more density is likely in future redevelopment, there are no  plans to increase the amount of affordable or low-income housing units.

"All the comments are based on the assumption the commission would increase the amount of subsidized housing," said Tom Carbo, the county's director of Housing and Community Services.

"In fact, our goal is to try to increase the amount of higher rent and higher-income housing. … This is not intended to increase concentrations of poverty."

Residents say the community, which has one of the highest concentrations of low-income housing in Columbia and Howard County, cannot bear an increase.

"This is the straw that broke the camel's back," said Kay Wisniewski. "All of the subsidized housing is being dumped in the older villages. The newer villages have virtually no subsidized housing."

County Housing Director Tom Carbo said 19 percent of the 983 apartment units surrounding the village center receive some kind of subsidy. Of the 1,433 apartment units receiving subsidies in Columbia, more than half, 847, are concentrated in the villages of Oakland Mills, Long Reach and Owen Brown, according to county figures.

Most of the nearly 30 people who spoke at the meeting criticized the commission's purchase. Their comments were applauded by those in attendance.

A chief criticism was that the commission blindsided the residents, notifying the village of the purchase in August, four months after it became available for purchase.

Carbo said the commission was bound by confidentiality agreements and could not disclose its interest until August. A public meeting on the issue was held in October, days before the commission finalized the purchase.

"We are operating in a real estate market. It has its own time frame and they are much faster than normal government channels," Carbo said.

Former county council member and state delegate Virginia Thomas questioned the transparency.

"If this is such a great project and so good for us, why didn't they come to us and give us plenty of time to listen and have input?" Thomas said.

Thomas and other residents have formed the Oakland Mills Improvement Association, which will advocate against the purchase.

Resident Bill McCormack, who is also part of the group, said the issue can be traced to the county's housing policies.

"County policy needs to change from segregation to integration, from concentration to de-concentration. Subsidized housing in small amounts needs to be spread throughout the county," McCormack said.

The apartment complex itself also was called into question, including the management. Verona resident Litia Thompson, who has lived there for eight months, said "it makes the whole community look bad."

Carbo said the commission "did their homework" on the property, and that it is "sound."

The commission has plans to renovate the exterior of the building and add private security in a partnership with other area complexes.

"There are some issues, but nothing substantial," Carbo said. "We will work to make improvements to the property."

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