Columbia, a planned community founded on James Rouse's vision for an economically diverse community, is moving forward with a sweeping redevelopment proposal that would include nearly 1,000 new affordable homes.
But even as Howard County officials consider that proposal, a federal agency is calling for a regulatory change to its housing voucher program that would make it more difficult for families to obtain affordable housing in the town.
For decades, families in Columbia have received larger federal rent subsidies than those in the rest of the Baltimore area. Now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to eliminate that advantage, which was intended to make Columbia more accessible to low-income families.
Columbia families could see drastic cuts to their rent subsidies. For example, a family can now apply a subsidy to a two-bedroom apartment that rents for up to $1,567 a month; the proposed change would reduce that cap to $1,187 monthly — a cut of 24 percent.
Thomas Carbo, executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission, said the change would have the effect of "funneling people toward some of the older, lower-rent communities and not giving them opportunities at some of the new properties."
New proposed limits would reduce rent subsidies in other Baltimore-area localities, though to a lesser degree. And that has housing advocates across the region worried.
Affordable housing is a bedrock principle in Columbia, where Rouse envisioned a diverse community with living space for both the janitor and the CEO.
The 2010 master plan for Columbia's redevelopment reaffirmed that ideal, calling for the downtown area to provide "a diverse, mixed-use, livable, physically distinctive and human-scaled place with a range of housing choices." It adds, "These goals remain as relevant today as they were 40 years ago, when Rouse first broke ground on Columbia."
The downtown area has seen substantial growth over the past year and half, with new retail, housing and cultural additions around the mall and Lake Kittamaqundi. Development thus far includes the 380-unit Metropolitan luxury apartment complex, a Whole Foods grocery store and a wellness spa on the lakefront.
But critics say the early stages of the redevelopment, which could ultimately bring more than 5,500 new housing units to the community, have not lived up to Rouse's goals, and instead have focused on luxury units. Of the 817 units approved, not one falls under the "affordable" banner.
A report this year from the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., a county-appointed nonprofit that serves as an affordable-housing watchdog, warned that new housing coming online — with monthly rents from $1,500 for a one-bedroom apartment to just shy of $3,000 for three bedrooms — could not be considered affordable.
Former county executive and Democratic state delegate Liz Bobo criticizes the "gentrification" of Columbia. "It's not economically just to expect people to come into our community and perform all of the kinds of jobs that people need and not provide the housing for them," she said.
County zoning laws require that 10 percent to 15 percent of new housing units be affordable; as an alternative, developers can pay into a fund that the county uses to develop its own affordable housing.
In recent months, county officials have worked with Howard Hughes Corp., the master developer of the new Columbia plan, on a proposal that would bring 970 housing units at below-market prices to the downtown area.
The units would be a mix, with some available for households that earn about 30 percent of the median income for the region — $89,600 — and who receive federal rent subsidies. There would also be units for families earning about 50 percent of the area median income, all the way up to those earning up to 80 percent of Howard County's median household income — which, at $109,476, is higher than the regional average.
Some units would be built as part of the housing already planned. Others would come from more unconventional proposals such as residential units built atop the Banneker fire station, apartments above a transit center and artists residences next to Toby's Dinner Theatre.
In exchange, Howard Hughes Corp. is asking to build 1,030 housing units over the current 5,500-unit limit, and to provide fewer parking spaces for studio and one-bedroom apartments.
Greg Fitchitt, vice president of development for Howard Hughes, said the extra density and reduced parking would help offset the cost of building affordable units. The proposal was introduced recently before the Howard County Council.
Paul Casey, president of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., said the plan was "a very good, workable approach to developing a significant number of affordable units."
Though the effects of the new rent limits set through the federal Housing Choice Voucher program — also known as Section 8 — would be felt most keenly in Columbia, they would impact the entire Baltimore region.
The program is designed to reduce rental costs for eligible families. Recipients can apply a voucher toward any apartment as long as the price is within an HUD-determined limit. Tenants pay their portion — typically about 30 percent of their income — and HUD picks up the rest.
HUD updates the rent limits every year.
Columbia would see especially drastic cuts this year because HUD wants to include the area as part of the Baltimore region, ending its long-standing practice of treating the community as a distinct housing market. The decision was disclosed in a footnote.
The proposal would also reduce rent limits across the metro area by about 4 percent — from $1,232 to $1,187 for a two-bedroom unit, for example.
The reduction is the result of HUD's removal of a waiver that allowed higher rates, hoping that would increase access to more expensive areas and reduce concentrations of poverty.
The changes, which were published Sept. 8 as part of an annual update of HUD rents, could take effect for new voucher holders next month. The new rates would not apply to current voucher holders until a second annual certification, providing a grace period of 13 to 25 months.
Housing officials in the region say the changes would reduce rental options available to low-income families. The proposal came as a surprise, especially after HUD recently pledged to do more to help families move into so-called "high-opportunity" areas.
In June, the agency said it wanted to establish rent limits by ZIP code, targeting its subsidies more precisely to local housing markets to make more-affluent areas accessible, and reducing payments in less-expensive areas.
"I think we're all very concerned," said Clifton Martin, CEO of the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County. "It seems counterintuitive."
Directors of area housing agencies, who have banded together in the past to push for higher limits, said they are looking for the data behind HUD's calculations and expect to submit a comment asking agency officials to reconsider. As of July, rents in the Baltimore area were up about 2.7 percent year-over-year, according to Zillow, an online real estate database.
The regulatory changes "would appear to make it harder for local public housing agencies to affirmatively further fair housing," said Dan Pontious, housing policy coordinator at the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
Under the current system, the HUD-determined limits for rents in a metro area are usually pegged to the 40th percentile of gross rents, based on data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
Since 2010, HUD has calculated limits for the Baltimore area using the slightly higher 50th percentile, an effort to help families move into more expensive apartments away from high-poverty areas.
Local housing officials also can approve the use of vouchers in apartments for up to 110 percent of the rent limits or more in some cases, providing for additional flexibility.
HUD determined rates for Columbia separately.
Still, the majority of the Baltimore region's roughly 25,000 voucher holders live in areas deemed "low opportunity," based on measures that include education, poverty and crime, according to a report issued last year by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.
HUD spokeswoman Niki Edwards said the agency wants to end its exception for the Baltimore area because a regular three-year review of the program found that higher rent limits were not helping to reduce the concentration of voucher holders in high-poverty areas.
She said the special treatment for Columbia, which dates to the 1970s, is no longer consistent with the federal government's definition of the metro area.
"We are making every effort to ensure our rental-assistance programs work, especially in higher-cost areas," she said in a statement. "We will review all concerns and comments before issuing the final rents. The public is encouraged to submit feedback."
Officials said the lower rent limits could severely restrict rental options in the Baltimore metro area and in Howard County, where the median gross rent in 2014 was more than $1,600, according to data from the American Community Survey.
Carbo of the Howard County Housing Commission said the HUD proposal could hurt county efforts to build more affordable units through its Moderate Income Housing Unit program. Construction calculations were made before the new federal numbers were released, he said.
"To the extent that these new rents might be below our MIHU rents, then voucher holders could not have access to those properties," Carbo said.
About 950 Housing Choice Voucher recipients live in Columbia; they make up about 80 percent of the voucher holders in the county, according to county housing commission data from June. The average subsidy in the county was about $1,094 in June.
County Executive Allan H. Kittleman said that as Columbia's redevelopment continues, affordable housing needs to be part of the equation. "It's important for our county to make sure we have housing for everyone," the Republican said.
Some longtime residents of Columbia, though, have issues with the proposal for adding hundreds of affordable housing units.
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Jerry Krasnick, president of the Banneker Place Condominium Association — a townhouse community near the Banneker fire station — said he and the five-member board oppose the plan because of concerns about traffic, crime and the potential impact on property values.
"They're just increasing and increasing the number of units that they're building, but the roads, unfortunately, have not been widened," said Krasnick. "The bottom line is, the more Section 8 housing you have, the more crime you have. All it does is lower property values."
The Rev. Mary Ka Kanahan, pastor at St. John the Evangelist United Methodist Church in Columbia and a leader of the community group People Acting Together in Howard, said the Howard Hughes proposal shows "a lot of creativity."
Kanahan said she has a sister who teaches in Howard County but cannot afford housing there, so she lives in Baltimore County.
"We all know that our county, and the success that we've had here, has made our city inaccessible to people of low or moderate incomes," Kanahan said. "We are stronger when we live in a diverse, mixed community."