Howard County enters 30-year deal for affordable housing in downtown Columbia

In the modern lobby of the Metropolitan, one of downtown Columbia's first major apartment projects, Howard County officials and Downtown Columbia master developer Howard Hughes Corp. signed a 30-year binding agreement Friday that sets the course for 900 affordable units in the heart of Columbia.

Officials lauded the agreement as a creative solution to the thorny issue of affordable housing that has embroiled the planning process over the last six years. Affordability is a bedrock principle of Columbia, where its founder, James Rouse, envisioned a diverse community in which janitor and CEO could live side-by side.

Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who represents the area, said signing the deal makes Rouse's words a reality: "If you want to live in my city, there will be a place for you and we will not be able to say no," she said.

Despite reaffirming that vision in 2010, when the council approved the Downtown Columbia plan, the vision of affordability has not come to life — until now.

As cranes brushed the skies and neon orange signs become a staple of the redevelopment project, John DeWolf, Howard Hughes' senior vice president, said Columbia's core is poised for a "geometric rise" as once-disparate development projects coalesce to form a more complete downtown environ.

To date, about 10 percent of the project, which calls for 640 hotel rooms, 6,250 residences and 4.3 million square feet of office space, is complete. Recent strides include the opening of Whole Foods Market, One Merriweather and the first new office building in over a decade, home to MedStar health headquarters.

Formed after more than three years of discussions between the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation, a nonprofit watchdog set up by local lawmakers; the Howard County Housing Commission; Howard Hughes; and county officials, the agreement requires around 400 affordable units dispersed in market-rate buildings; 417 units in tax credit projects; and 83 units through a live-where-you-work program.

"This came together as a consensus plan," said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, who praised the contributions of the late Tom Carbo, the head of the housing commission, who died two months ago.

The agreement received the council's blessing in November, when local lawmakers also gave the redevelopment project a significant boost by approving $90 million in tax increment financing and exempted affordable housing from counting toward the cap of 5,500 residential units allowed in downtown.

Between 6 and 10 percent of all of Howard Hughes' future apartment projects — excluding the Metropolitan, which is fully built-out, and an adjacent development — will be set aside as affordable units.

The units with the lowest rent — around 200 — target individuals with housing choice vouchers, or incomes of around $27,000. Based on current rates, monthly rents in these units would range between around $1,100 for an efficiency and $2,200 for a three-bedroom apartment, paid in part by the vouchers.

Paul Casey, president of Columbia's housing corporation, said the agreement sets an example on how to incorporate affordable housing through a bi-partisan, innovative process that brings the developer, housing advocates and other stakeholders to the table.

"There's nothing like this anywhere," Casey said, referencing the broad mix of financial streams, land conveyances and ownership guidelines the agreement lays out.

Households earning around $88,000 would be able to lease one of another 200 units. The agreement allows affordable units to be smaller than market rate units to reduce development costs.

Another 417 units, financed through federal low-income housing tax credits, target people earning between 40 to 60 percent of the Baltimore area's median income or between roughly $36,000 and $54,000.

The first tax credit project will bring up to 200 units at the site of Toby's Dinner Theatre, which is set to transform into a $130 million cultural arts center and break ground as early as August.

Despite outspoken community opposition, the Banneker Fire Station will contain up to 100 units in senior housing above the fire station, which will be rebuilt. That project is in the county's budget books for fiscal 2021.

Around 240 units are planned for a future transit center and a new central library that won't be in the county's budget until fiscal 2026. The transit center could be as high as 20 stories. Each site will have around 120 units.

Affordable units makeup about half of each tax credit project.

The live-where-you-work program, managed by Columbia's housing corporation and proposed by Councilman Greg Fox, is aimed to help people working in downtown Columbia to live where they work. The corporation aims to finalize details of the program by the end of 2018. Howard Hughes is providing $7.8 million to help finance the corporation's projects and $3.2 million to help fund the tax credit projects.

Although the deal locks the county into an agreement with Hughes for 30 years, each project will follow the county's approval process for new development.

Columbia's master plan of 2010 called for around 15 percent of all housing to be affordable. After Columbia's housing corporation concluded that the plan's mechanisms, which relied on a fee paid by the developer, weren't working, the corporation and the developer agreed on a new plan in 2015 after the council called on both parties to come to an agreement.

In November, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa attempted to pass a plan similar to the housing corporation's original proposal. The competing plan failed by a 4-1 vote. During public hearings last year, a small crop of housing advocates, including the Full Spectrum Housing Coalition, argued the county's deal does not go far enough in the number of units and concentrates affordable housing in tax credit sites.

This story has been updated.

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