Representatives from the company working to turn broad swaths of Columbia into an urban center told the Howard County Council Monday that they can build close to 1,000 affordable housing units downtown if the county is willing to ease some of its development-related requirements.
The presentation comes four months after a group focused on housing downtown delivered a report concluding that the county's plan to achieve affordable housing in Columbia is not accomplishing its goals and that the city is at risk of becoming too expensive for Howard's working class.
More recently, on May 27, some 75 people gathered along the side of Little Patuxent Parkway to call for affordable housing options downtown.
Monday, John DeWolf, senior vice president of Columbia's "master developer," Howard Hughes, said the company takes its "role as community developer very seriously.
"We're not for or against affordable housing, but we are for fully executing what's been put in front of us" and "we recognize that establishing a full spectrum of housing downtown is an important part," DeWolf said.
Howard Hughes' proposed solution would bring 992 below-market-rate housing units to downtown Columbia. They would be affordable to people who earn between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income, and several hundred could be built within three to five years.
Howard County's median household income is $109,865, according to the last U.S. Census. The median income for the Baltimore-Towson region -- which is used to calculate rent for units built with federal funds, according to Howard Housing Director Tom Carbo -- is $89,600.
So far, some 817 housing units have been approved for downtown -- 380 at the Metropolitan, an apartment complex across from the Mall in Columbia, and 437 more at an apartment building planned next door. Neither of those projects is slated to have affordable units.
Moving forward, however, each new Howard Hughes project could comprise a minimum of 6 percent and a maximum of 10 percent affordable units, the company's vice president of development, Greg Fitchitt, said.
Of that 6 to 10 percent, 3 to 5 percent would be housing affordable to people making 30 percent of the area median income and would be funded by federal government housing vouchers. The remaining 3 to 5 percent would be affordable to people making 80 percent of Howard County's median income.
For people who make closer to 50 percent of the area median income, Howard Hughes proposed six new housing development ideas that could be funded by tax credits.
These included creative concepts, such as residential units built on top of a new fire station planned for downtown Columbia and artists' residences next to Toby's restaurant and dinner theater, a local landmark.
Other ideas could bring housing to the site of the Columbia Flier building (which DeWolf said would likely be demolished); as well as to the site of the Central Branch of the Howard County library system (which would be relocated, likely to the Crescent property near Merriweather Post Pavilion); and to the land where Columbia's current fire house sits.
In exchange, Howard Hughes asked the council to consider exempting section 8 and tax credit-funded units from a density cap that limits the developer to building 5,500 residential units downtown. The profits gained from the bonus density, DeWolf and Fitchitt said, would help to make affordable units possible.
They also asked the council to reconsider its zoning regulations related to parking, which currently require 1.6 parking spaces per housing unit. The ratio should be linked to bedrooms instead, Fitchitt said. Making the change would incentivize building studio apartments, which could also be rented at cheaper prices, he added.
The proposal represents Howard Hughes' first detailed response to the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation report, and none of the suggestions would be binding until the corporation, the developer and the council reach a final agreement.
"What we're trying to do is put a bunch of things on the table today," DeWolf said.
Council members and housing advocates pointed out that five of the six sites where Howard Hughes is proposing new, tax credit-funded affordable housing are owned by the county or another business. They also noted that building units financed by section 8 vouchers would require limiting affordable housing elsewhere in Howard, as the county receives only a limited pot of money from the federal government to allocate to low-income projects.
Still, Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation President Paul Casey called the Howard Hughes proposal "encouraging.
"What we have is a proposal that we can move forward in discussions," he said. The group will address the suggestions at its next meeting, on June 17.