In 4-1 vote, Howard planning board approves affordable housing proposal for downtown Columbia

The Metropolitan, adjacent to The Mall in Columbia, is among new housing built in the downtown Columbia area.
The Metropolitan, adjacent to The Mall in Columbia, is among new housing built in the downtown Columbia area. (Photo by Nate Pesce)

In a 4-1 vote, the planning board approved the Kittleman administration's affordable housing plan for downtown Columbia that includes nearly 1,000 affordable units tied to a significant increase in housing density and reduced parking.

The package by the Kittleman administration includes a rare 40-year binding agreement with Howard Hughes Corp., Columbia's master developer, which provides affordable housing with varying levels of affordability based on the county's median income on top of the current cap of 5,500 residential units. The agreement, which freezes zoning regulations for a certain period, has not been finalized as negotiations continue.


As an advisory body, the board concurred that the administration's proposal is the product of consensus-building with key stakeholders and expressed support for additional density and reduced parking, but diverged on how much affordable housing should be included.

The board included a recommendation to increase the baseline requirement for affordable housing in downtown Columbia from 10 percent to 13 percent in the administration's amendment to the downtown Columbia plan – a move that does not change the agreement with Howard Hughes Corp.


Chairman Bill Santos, who attempted to change requirements laid out by the proposal, said "the cat is already out of the bag" for hundreds of units already approved in downtown Columbia, none of which have affordable housing.

Santos was the only board member to object to the developer's agreement and the administration's proposal.

"Everything is laid out for you [in this agreement]. It's sausage-making that nobody likes to see," said Tudy Adler.

Planning board member Phil Engelke said the administration's package reflects downtown Columbia's purpose as an economic development hub.

"Downtown is a patchwork and everything about it would need to be patchwork," said Engelke.

With little fanfare and discussion, the planning board voted to reject Councilwoman Jen Terrasa's competing proposal, which calls for 15 percent of all units to be affordable, a proposal that is in line with similar affordable housing requirements in comparable zones around the county.

"Of course I'm disappointed. The planning board didn't go with the simple inclusionary zoning option," said Terrasa. "The discussion [last night] shows how complicated this plan is."

Board member Erica Roberts said the value of Terrasa's plan lies in its simplicity and clarity.

Terrasa's plan is nearly identical to the housing corporation's initial plan, which it abandoned in favor of the developer's recommendations last year. It creates 702 new housing units at 40 to 80 percent of the county's median income, which currently is $110,133.

Shooting down the administration's package as "a gift to Howard Hughes," Terrasa said her proposal ensures affordable housing is fully integrated throughout downtown Columbia instead of clustering most affordable housing into projects with 50 percent or 100 percent affordable housing.

Local impact

The agreement outlines a series of land exchanges, contributions and long term leases for five projects. Nearly 500 units would use a federal program called Low-Income Housing Tax Credit that provides tax incentives for developers and corporate investors to invest in affordable rental housing. Roughly 200 units would apply to people with Section 8 vouchers and 150 low-income housing units will be on Howard Hughes' land.


Carl DeLorenzo, the county's director of policy and programs, said housing at 80 percent of the county's median income should be considered "affordable" because rents in downtown Columbia are higher than other areas in the county, with a rent floor of at least $1,500 per month.

The administration's plan also reduces parking ratios for studio and one-bedroom apartments from 1.65 spaces per unit to 1.3 spaces per unit, an increase from the developer's initial proposal. Santos questioned the feasibility of reduced parking given the lack of a comprehensive public transportation plan.

Preliminary traffic studies show the additional density will not heavily impact traffic, given proposed plans to manage traffic, said Kris Jagarapu, chief traffic engineering division.

The County Council will consider the proposal once legislation is pre-filed at the end of May, along with a separate multi-million dollar deal that uses a sometimes controversial public financial tool called tax increment financing by allowing the county to borrow against the future increase value of property to make public improvements to downtown Columbia.

While the administration's proposal has been touted as a consensus-driven approach with the county's public housing authority — the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation — and the housing commission, the proposal closely mirrors a June proposal by Howard Hughes.

Paul Casey, chairman of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp., defended the proposal.

"Is it achievable? Is it practical? Is it workable? Yes," said Casey.

The housing commission, the county's public housing authority, said the plan does not shift the burden away from the developer to the commission. Tom Carbo, the commission's director, said the agreement allows the developer to partially cover land costs associated with tax credits for affordable housing.

The administration's package effectively eliminates a trust fund created in 2012 that required developers to pay fees at different phases of construction and a per-unit fee for each market-rate housing unit, but lacked "a clear mechanism" to allow the housing corporate to create affordable housing, according to Howard Hughes Corp.

"We have almost $5 million in our fund but nowhere to spend it because the current law doesn't work," said Paul Casey, the chairman of the Columbia Downtown Housing Corp.

While the plan includes affordable housing throughout market-rate sites and across different median incomes, the plan largely concentrates affordable housing at several mixed income sites like the Banneker Fire Station — which drew significant backlash from residents at a hearing last month — Toby's Dinner Theatre, an old library site in the Merriweather district and the Columbia Flier building, pending purchase of the site. Generally, at least half of the units would be affordable at varying levels of the county's median income.

A future transit hub for the Symphony Woods area and the temporary fire station site could be developed largely for affordable housing units.

Howard Hughes plans to provide $3.2 million in a gap finance fund to help finance some tax credit projects.

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