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Columbia affordable housing agreement still in the works, groups tell council

Leslie Glassberg, of Columbia, waves a pink pom-pom while joining a few dozen others in a rally on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia for more affordable housing, Wednesday, May 27, 2015.
Leslie Glassberg, of Columbia, waves a pink pom-pom while joining a few dozen others in a rally on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia for more affordable housing, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. (Staff photo by Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Representatives from Howard Hughes and the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation told Howard County Council members Monday that they're moving closer to an agreement on a plan to include affordable housing in downtown Columbia's development.

"The parties have been working very actively toward trying to find a solution," downtown housing corporation President Paul Casey said, nothing members of the groups have invested about 200 hours of work on ironing out details so far.

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Casey said his group and Howard Hughes, Columbia's master developer, have reached agreements on some issues, such as the scattering of lower-income units throughout downtown, a process for developing tax credit projects and a decision that the Columbia Flier building, if developed, will be a mixed-income project, rather than contain 100 percent affordable units, as had been originally proposed.

Much is left to pin down, including the logistics of potential land transfers, rezoning of land for residential development, the length that a unit should be offered at an affordable rate and a means to guarantee that land slated for affordable development won't be used for anything else.

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Both parties said they were optimistic about reaching common ground.

"I feel like we are making good progress," Howard Hughes Vice President of Development Greg Fitchitt said.

The two groups have been working on developing a new plan to guarantee affordable units downtown since Howard Hughes presented a proposal in early June. The developer's presentation was prompted by an April report from the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation, which concluded that the county's current model -- which allows Howard Hughes to pay a fee in lieu of building affordable units in Columbia -- would not accomplish the county's goal of 15 percent affordable housing downtown.

Fitchitt said he thought Howard Hughes and the downtown housing corporation would likely reach an agreement "in the next couple of weeks."

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Council members urged an acceleration in the negotiations.

"We've been having this conversation for quite some time," said Councilman Calvin Ball. If an agreement is introduced in September, the council wouldn't be able to take a vote until October at the earliest -- and since the legislative process would likely involve a general plan amendment, a final decision could take much longer.

The council will also want to weigh in on issues such as parking ratios and a potential density bonus for Howard Hughes, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa pointed out.

"The county is a party to this and they're not at the table" for the current discussions, she said.

Councilman Greg Fox recommended council members let Howard Hughes and the CDHC know what potential dealbreakers might be for them.

"For me, I've made it clear: I'm open to whatever, as long as it's not a fiscal hit on the county," Fox said.

The groups agreed to meet with the council at a legislative session on Sept. 8, after members return from their August recess.

An earlier version of this story listed the wrong date for the council's legislative session. It is Sept. 8. 

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